Today’s ‘Campus Alert’: Long Island Quackdown

July 2, 2007

Today’s Campus Alert highlights a recurring problem we see on campuses—punishing students for engaging in offensive jokes.

At Long Island University (LIU), five students were fired from their jobs as resident assistants (RAs) after a two-minute clip landed on YouTube that showed them acting as Islamist extremists pretending to “kidnap” a rubber duck and hold it “hostage.” The RAs donned black attire and a Swiss Army knife and read a list of “demands,” one of which was a new iPod.

LIU provost Joseph Shenker promptly fired the students, called the video “racially insensitive,” and stated, “This is not an issue of free speech, but rather an issue of respect for others and insensitivity to acts of violence.”

Is that a joke? A trivial gag involving holding a rubber duck hostage is “offensive” and warrants the termination of these students, which resulted in a loss of their tuition assistance and meal-plan benefits? As we wrote in Campus Alert, LIU’s response was a “disproportionately large, potentially life-altering punishment[].”

It’s something we see time after time here at FIRE—from the Johns Hopkins University student punished for sending out a party invitation with jokes some found offensive, to the student journalists at Tufts University who were sanctioned for publishing what was clearly political satire.

In the LIU incident, the students filed a wrongful termination suit against the university, emphasizing that although the school is private, it portrayed itself as a school that valued free expression. LIU quickly settled the case out of court.

Still, as Campus Alert states, “The LIU case perfectly illustrates the potentially ruinous effects of administrators who put civility before common sense.” And that’s no joke.