Students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), my alma mater, embarrassed themselves on Sunday night by throwing a Twitter tantrum about the school’s decision to hold classes despite the cold weather.
By Monday morning, nearly 2,000 tweets had used the hashtag “#FuckPhyllis,” a reference to UIUC Chancellor Phyllis Wise, who had the thankless task of informing the campus community that they would not be enjoying an extended weekend. Despite their petulance, these tweets might have gone unnoticed had some tweeters not started making racist and sexist comments about Chancellor Wise. Not surprisingly, this development attracted significant media attention.
Such controversies are frequently greeted with calls to punish—or at least investigate—the students posting the comments. Fortunately, the UIUC administration’s response to the Twitter fiasco respected the First Amendment, foregoing administrative punishment in favor of a more powerful response: i.e., more speech from students condemning the tweets. Inside Higher Ed reports:
A spokeswoman said that the campus judicial officer looked at the tweets and determined they were protected free expression, and so no attempt is planned to punish those who tweeted.
That is precisely correct. We are pleased that the UIUC administration recognized straight away that though distasteful, these tweets are protected by the First Amendment and cannot be punished. A swift, decisive, and public statement like this bodes well for the culture of free expression and debate at UIUC. Not only does it encourage FIRE that UIUC will consider whether speech is constitutionally protected before attempting to sanction students but it also sends a clear message to students that UIUC is a place where students can express themselves and debate ideas no matter how offensive or critical of administrators.
In fact, that is exactly what has happened—a discussion has been sparked.
In response to the offending tweets, many have used their own voice to criticize and counter that speech with yet more speech. People are discussing and debating the state of race and gender relations at UIUC and in higher education more broadly. The back-and-forth of open and uninhibited debate is possible only when the free speech rights of students are staunchly defended, and the discussion that has ensued will likely have far more meaningful and long-lasting effects than the tweets directed at Chancellor Wise.
We commend the UIUC administration for its wise and thoughtful response to this incident, and we hope that it will continue stand up for the First Amendment rights of its students so that the marketplace of ideas can flourish. We know of some other schools that would be wise to follow its lead.