DELAND, Fla., December 8, 2005—Stetson University has announced that parody, “derogatory” or “demeaning” comments, and even jokes from The Tonight Show are out of bounds for its students. Stetson’s chilling declarations came after the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) protested the private Florida university’s censorship of a student magazine.
“Stetson’s Orwellian policies should scare every student on its campus,” remarked FIRE President David French. “If saying anything that could be considered ‘derogatory’ is outlawed at Stetson, its students are taking a risk by speaking at all.”
Stetson promises its students that it will provide a “liberal education” and respect “[t]he value of diverse persons and differing ideas in an educational community.” But a group of students recently learned that these promises were empty when they were denied permission to distribute the first issue of their new magazine, Common Sense, because of the magazine’s viewpoint. Senior Vice President James Beasley ordered staffers to cease distributing the paper in an October 31 letter because they had printed a Jay Leno joke about illegal immigration and superimposed a question mark over a rainbow flag-draped dormitory window. Beasley claimed that these items “targeted” Mexicans and “the sexual orientation of a particular person.”
The director of Stetson’s Cross Cultural Center, Shelley Wilson, even went so far as to send an e-mail from her university account telling at least one Common Sense advertiser that the magazine’s viewpoint “supports the worst of our society and makes it less safe for everyone.” Worse yet, this conduct is only Stetson’s latest assault on freedom of the press: the university shut down another student publication in 2003 for printing a racy April Fools’ Day edition.
FIRE wrote Stetson President H. Douglas Lee on November 2, reminding him that freedom of speech “exists precisely to protect speech that some members of a community may find controversial or ‘offensive.’” FIRE also requested that Stetson reject its policy of prior review over student publications. Stetson’s lawyer, Mark G. Alexander, rejected these requests in a November 21 letter that, among other problems, showed a woeful misunderstanding of the First Amendment. Alexander denied that the joke about Mexican immigration could be “legitimate political discourse” and stated that Jay Leno jokes might not be acceptable if made by Stetson community members. He also claimed that the parody “targeted a particular individual,” even though there was no way to tell who that individual might be from the magazine.
“Someone who believes that jokes or derogatory and insensitive comments cannot be legitimate political discourse must have missed every episode of Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show, as well as every Presidential election,” noted FIRE Director of Legal and Public Advocacy Greg Lukianoff. “And to say that showing an unidentifiable window with a rainbow flag in it ‘targets’ someone is to strip all meaning from the term.”
FIRE’s French went on to say, “Freedom of the press cannot exist at a place where the authorities read a magazine before it can even be distributed. Where this occurs on a national level, we call it a police state. At Stetson, it’s apparently just business as usual.”
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty at Stetson University can be viewed at thefire.org/stetson.
David French, President, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org
H. Douglas Lee, President, Stetson University: 386-822-7250; email@example.com
James Beasley, Senior Vice President, Stetson University: 386-822-7210; firstname.lastname@example.org
Shelley Wilson, Director, Cross Cultural Center, Stetson University: 386-822-7401; email@example.com