LA CROSSE, Wis., April 20, 2006—The University of Wisconsin–La Crosse (UW-L) has reversed its decision to censor a satirical student magazine. UW-L’s student government had attempted to limit the printing of the magazine to just a few dozen copies in response to articles some deemed offensive. The magazine’s rights were restored less than a week after the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) intervened on its behalf.
“Satire and parody are vital, effective, and very strongly protected forms of political speech. Unfortunately, they are under constant attack on today’s college campuses,” stated FIRE President Greg Lukianoff. “UW-L did the right thing by vindicating its students’ rights to express themselves in these time-honored ways.”
The Second Supper Alternative News, a recognized UW-L student publication, garnered attention when it ran an article in its February 28 issue entitled “Cheney Kills Five Crips in Inner-City Hunting Accident.” The article parodied Vice President Dick Cheney’s recent hunting accident by portraying him as a gang member. UW-L’s student government, the Student Association, responded by passing a resolution on March 29 asserting that The Second Supper’s “racist, sexist, homophobic, ablest (sic.), anti-Semitists (sic.) speech” would “threaten the recruitment and retention of students from underrepresented groups.” Sponsored by “the students silenced by privilege,” the resolution ordered the magazine to cut its distribution from 2000 copies per issue to only 60—a 97% reduction. (Second Supper editor Joe Gullo, fearing for the financial stability of the advertising-funded publication, eventually managed to bargain the student government up to allowing 900 copies per issue to be distributed.)
“No student governing body at a public university has the right to cut a publication’s distribution to a few dozen copies because it prints material that some consider offensive,” stated Lukianoff. “Publications like this one exist precisely to challenge, to amuse, to provoke, and indeed, even to offend. Censorship of such publications, no matter what form it takes, is unacceptable.”
The Second Supper consulted with FIRE, which on April 13 wrote a letter to UW-L Chancellor Douglas N. Hastad, advising him that the Student Association’s actions were inconsistent with the First Amendment and that “[t]he UW-L administration now has a moral and legal duty to intervene to ensure that the denial of The Second Supper’s First Amendment rights does not continue.” FIRE also sent the letter to the UW-L Student Association.
On April 18, the Student Association heeded FIRE’s advice and issued a statement withdrawing the resolution limiting the distribution of The Second Supper. That statement, however, went on to reiterate the offensiveness of the publication, saying that, “directly and indirectly students, faculty, and staff have been hurt by the language the paper publishes.”
“Again and again FIRE has stood up to schools in the UW System that have allowed a cry of offense to become the voice of the censor. We are pleased that this time, a UW university took our advice and quickly ended its unconstitutional regime of censorship,” noted Lukianoff.
Individual rights in the UW System have been under a microscope since last year, when FIRE intervened at UW–Eau Claire (UWEC), where the student government decided not to fund a publication called The Flip Side because it endorsed a partisan political viewpoint—a misinterpretation of the law that UWEC has yet to rectify. FIRE also interceded last fall when UWEC prohibited student resident-assistants from leading Bible studies in their dormitories because it might make them “unapproachable” to other students. A similar policy was in place at UW–Madison. After months of delay and the filing of a lawsuit, the UW System finally submitted to FIRE’s demands and terminated that policy.
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 on campuses across America can be viewed at thefire.org.