Over at The Torch at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, Adam Steinbaugh reports on a university administration sinking to depths of censorious idiocy that managed to surprise me.
The University of Wisconsin – Superior's student newspaper, The Promethean, ran an April Fool edition for the second year in the row. The entire concept of April Fool's Day is inherently problematic, as it generally involves making fun of someone, even if they are in what they view as their safe space. April Fool's editions by college papers are particularly triggering because of the huge delta between how funny college students believe they are and how funny they actually are. But this edition — linked in Adam's piece above — was awfully mild, with the "edgiest" piece being satire by a Jewish student about being Jewish in Wisconsin.
Tumult is banal. College students gonna college student. Just as satire is free speech, so is hand-wringing, self-to-the-cross-nailing, and caterwauling of every type. This is the time to do that sort of thing, so knock yourself out! Believe me, you're going to have trouble being satisfactorily outraged when you're paying down a mortgage and trying to keep your kids from discovering meth.
No, the problem is not young adults acting like young adults, whether with satire or outrage. The problem arises when nominal adults react in an unprincipled and irresponsible manner. That's what happened here, when university administrators announced they were launching an "investigation" based on a "grievance" filed against the satirical edition by a grad student:
Debbie Cheslock, graduate student and student program manager for UW-Superior's Gender Equity Resource Center, filed the complaint. She is alleging the editors violated university policy on non-academic student conduct and improperly noticed its April Fools' Day edition as satire. She contends articles included derogatory terms that were anti-semitic, racist and misogynistic.
Cheslock's grasp of the First Amendment is idiosyncratic, to put it mildly. She believes that it is censorship for a speaker to refuse to meet with their would-be inquisitor:
So, just to clarify, you are also unwilling to meet with me to discuss this matter? It is unfortunate, indeed, since that would be the very censorship you claim is deadly. The right to free speech also includes a continued dialogue and I am extremely displeased in the lack of regard for others’ opinions.
An "investigation" is in the works:
Meanwhile, UW-Superior is investigating the complaint with assistance from UW System’s legal counsel, according to UW-Superior spokesman Dan Fanning.
"We certainly respect the students who are involved with the newspaper and their right to have free speech," said Fanning. "At the same time, we’ve heard from so many students, alumni and community members and they see what we see. Even though that might have been meant to be satire … it clearly wasn’t funny to everyone, that it offended some people and that it crossed some lines that should not have been crossed. The university condemns that."
I'm sorry, but unless the UW system's legal counsel's response is "get the fuck out of my office, you civically illiterate imbecile," this is offensive and ridiculous. I don't have a problem with the administration participating in the marketplace of ideas by saying, in effect, "you're an jerk, but you're a jerk with free speech." But any "investigation" — meaning, any inquiry carrying the explicit or implicit threat of punishment for obviously protected speech — is unequivocally wrong. So is promoting ignorance about rights, as the administration attempted to do in statements supporting its investigation:
As we’ve said consistently, this was unethical and unprofessional journalism and contradicts the very values of our school. Satire is fine, having a difference of opinion is fine, but disrespectful and offensive language is not fine.
FIRE's letter to UW-Superior leaders is stern, as it ought to be. Hopefully the administration will decide that it ought to be spending money on education instead of on lawyers.
Responsibility is not a zero-sum game. Debbie Cheslock and her ilk are morally and intellectually responsible for being thuggish and censorious. But that does not diminish, in the least, the responsibility of grown-ups in the UW-Superior to resist censorship and thuggery when it is urged upon them by students. The things that these students want are incoherent, unprincipled, and totalitarian:
Cheslock said she wants those involved in the Promethean to be sent a message that the paper’s content was not acceptable and isn’t what UWS stands for. She also wants to ensure that the Promethean staff and faculty advisor go through a cultural competency training about diversity.
Yokel said that with free-speech rights comes a duty to exercise those rights in a responsible way.
“The First Amendment is a right, yes, but you not only have a right to say what you want, you have a responsibility to the people you’re representing,” Yokel said. “This paper is a student paper and I’m a student and this paper does not represent me.”
The administration needs to refuse to violate rights based on such demands. If it won't resist, it should be compelled to do so by force of law.