In a victory for freedom of expression, Temple College President Glenda O. Barron has quickly reversed the censorship of a religiously themed cartoon and the Nietzsche quotation “God is dead.” A vice president required the removal of postings English Professor Kerry Laird had affixed to his office door because they “can be considered very controversial and offensive.” Approximately half an hour after FIRE faxed a letter to President Barron, she announced to all faculty and staff that the censorship “was inappropriate.”
The trouble began earlier this term, when Laird posted a cartoon on his office door that used profanity in satirizing a passage from the Bible’s Second Book of Kings. On October 23, 2008, Mark Smith, Interim Vice President of Educational Services and Chief Academic Officer, demanded that the cartoon be removed. When Laird returned from working at Temple’s Writing Center, he found that the cartoon had been ripped down.
Later that day, Laird posted the line “Gott ist tot” (“God is dead”), a quotation from Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, on his office door. This line became the second target of Temple College’s censorship. Smith demanded that the quotation also be removed. Demonstrating a lack of understanding of both academic freedom and harassment law, Smith inappropriately invoked the specter of religious harassment: “Simply posting a cartoon or note on a door that can be considered offensive, insightful [sic], and/or controversial is not a part of academic freedom and does not reflect well on Temple College and has the potential of creating a hostile or intimidating learning/work environment.”
A faculty member and a student both pointed out to Smith that he was applying a double standard against Laird’s protected expression, noting that Christian expression (such as a sign reading “With God all things are possible”) is visible to students across campus. The faculty member, who had been required to remove the cartoon, admirably refused to be a party to the censorship a second time. Nevertheless, Smith dismissed their concerns, stating to the student:
Temple College as a public institution cannot be represented as showing preference toward any religious philosophy/perspective or toward the opposite, being atheism. The same practice goes for politics. The decision to have the quote removed was that the quote can be considered very controversial and offensive to others. In fact, other people have already expressed that the wording is offensive!
FIRE wrote and faxed a letter to President Barron yesterday demanding that Temple College, which is located between Austin and Waco, restore Laird’s constitutional rights. We pointed out, for instance, that the First Amendment clearly protects “offensive” and, perhaps most of all, “controversial” speech. The principle of freedom of speech does not exist to protect only non-controversial speech; indeed, it exists precisely to protect speech that some members of a community may find “controversial” or “offensive.” The Supreme Court stated in Texas v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397, 414 (1989), that “[i]f there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.” Similarly, the Court wrote in Papish v. Board of Curators of the University of Missouri, 410 U.S. 667, 670 (1973) that “the mere dissemination of ideas—no matter how offensive to good taste—on a state university campus may not be shut off in the name alone of ‘conventions of decency.'” No public college may retaliate against a professor because others on campus felt offended by fully protected speech. Smith apparently was unaware of such precedents.
Within approximately half an hour, President Barron reversed Smith’s censorship of both the cartoon and the quotation. Within about an hour, she had e-mailed all faculty and staff that the censorship “was inappropriate.”
President Barron should be commended for such speedy redress of the violations of Laird’s constitutional rights. Other presidents, such as Raymond Hawkins of Lone Star College–Tomball not too far away, should follow her example and quickly restore individual rights on campus. At Lone Star, a student group was censored for distributing jocular flyers listing “Top Ten Gun Safety Tips” and was told that the group faced derecognition because of the mention of guns on their flyer. FIRE learned yesterday that the group, Young Conservatives of Texas (YCT), which had earned provisional recognition, had been denied official status by Dean of Student Development E. Edward Albracht. That looks like a clear violation of the group’s First Amendment right of freedom of association. YCT reports that Albracht refused to give any explanation why he rejected the group and forced it into a hearing to defend its right to exist. Even after the hearing, YCT still does not know whether or not it will be allowed to operate on campus.
President Hawkins has not heard the last from FIRE. It is long past time for him to step in, like his counterpart at Temple College, to avoid legal liability and prevent further violations of individual rights on his campus.
Lake Superior State University President Rodney L. Lowman has also not heard the last from FIRE when it comes to protecting the individual rights of faculty members on his campus. LSSU is yet another public school whose representatives mistakenly believe that certain types of door postings count as unlawful discrimination or harassment, and who seem entirely untroubled by any resulting evidence of a content-based double standard. Professor Richard Crandall, a nearly 40-year veteran of teaching, was ordered to remove materials from his door that dealt with issues such as Islamic terrorism, gun control, presidential politics, and the war in Iraq—or face charges of “insubordination.” Other professors maintained similar postings about the same issues on their office doors, but only Crandall was censored.