Rubber Ducky, You’re the One…Who Made Satire No Fun

February 9, 2007

Campus comedians, be warned. The state of humor in higher education took another blow this week when Long Island University (LIU) fired five students from their Resident Assistant positions for posting on the internet a farcical video in which they “kidnapped” their residence hall’s unofficial mascot—a rubber ducky.

In the short film, which has since been removed from the web site, the resident assistants parodied images of terrorist “hostage films” by donning ski masks and imitating Middle Eastern accents. School officials have called the film “insensitive” to community members personally affected by terrorism. The five students, all seniors, will face a campus disciplinary hearing.

“This is not an issue of free speech, but rather an issue of respect for others and insensitivity to acts of violence,” university Provost Joseph Shenker said in a statement. “We don’t find anything about terrorism and hostage-taking to be humorous. We insist on a campus where respect for others is demonstrated at all times.”

Contrary to what Mr. Shenker says, this is, of course, an issue of free speech. Like Justin Park at Johns Hopkins University, who wrote a satirical invitation to a ‘Halloween in the Hood’ party, or Saad Saadi, the University of Pennsylvania senior who dressed as a suicide bomber for a campus Halloween party, or the many student journalists who push the envelope in April Fools Day editions each year, these LIU students found humor in a subject many of us consider “too hot to handle.”

Having not seen the film in question, I can’t say for sure if Mr. Shenker’s level of outrage is appropriate (since there have been no reports of students actually complaining about the film, I’m inclined to think “no”). But in a perfect world, the question of whether the film was truly “insensitive” would be largely irrelevant. As FIRE has reiterated here many times before, the Constitution does not guarantee us a right not to be offended. The LIU “hostage video”—like all forms of comedy, satire, or parody, no matter how crass or edgy—is constitutionally protected speech. Private colleges, like LIU, that purport to be bastions of free inquiry (the Student Handbook for LIU’s C.W. Post campus, where this incident took place, promises students the right “to free speech and peaceful assembly”), ought to hold themselves to this same standard.

The fact that these filmmakers are student-employees does complicate this case to a small degree. One could reasonably argue that student-employees, particularly resident assistants and orientation leaders who are considered ambassadors for the college and campus role models, can and should be held to different standards than their peers. But LIU would be wise to remember that these pranksters are students first and employees second. It’s one thing to fire them from their campus jobs. It’s a different thing entirely to extend their punishment into the academic realm. Further sanctions against these students would only exacerbate the chilling effect this incident will inevitably have on controversial speech at LIU’s campus.