In the above photo, you’re looking at the front of the newest addition to the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. It’s hard to imagine a more permanent salute to freedom of speech and the press than plastering the entire text of the First Amendment in 10-foot high letters across the enormous facade of one of your university’s best-known schools.
Unfortunately, Syracuse’s recent assault on the free speech of its students has shown that this private university’s voluntary commitment to the principles of the First Amendment may be nothing more than deceptive marketing.
Evidently taking its cues from the folks in charge of the press in bastions of freedom like Iran, the authorities in charge of the Syracuse University College of the Law (SUCOL) decided that a law student-authored parody blog called SUCOLitis (the website is currently inaccessible because of fear of Syracuse’s investigation) was unacceptable and have launched a dragnet investigation to find out who would have the audacity to make fun of law school students, professors, and staff. I’ve been to law school. I know that folks there can be arrogant. But launching an investigation to see what anonymous person on the Internet is mocking you is taking it to a whole new level.
The Lt. Gerard of the law school’s manhunt is associate professor of law Gregory Germain, an expert in First Amendment law criminal procedure taxation, commercial law, and bankruptcy and corporate law. (A tax lawyer? Seriously?) Prof. Germain informed law student Len Audauer, the first but probably not the last target of the inquiry, that “[t]he charges are extremely serious.”
Let’s take a minute to see what the U.S. Supreme Court, a governmental body that may be peripherally familiar to SUCOL, has to say about what constitutes protected parody under the Constitution. In Hustler v. Falwell (1988), Hustler magazine, well known as the class of American pornographic magazines (har), ran a parody advertisement in its November 1983 issue (you can see the cover here, but I wouldn’t click that if you’re easily offended) that made certain claims about the Rev. Jerry Falwell and his family. To wit, it said the following:
- Jerry Falwell had sex for the first time in an outhouse.
- Said outhouse was occupied by a goat immediately preceding the liaison.
- Jerry Falwell’s first time having sex was incestuous, as it took place with his mother.
- Jerry Falwell was persuaded to have incestuous sex with his mother by the fact that his mother had previously copulated with every other man in the city of Lynchburg, Virginia.
- Falwell had sex with his mother despite the fact that she was unattractive.
- Falwell and his mother were drunk at the time of intercourse.
- Falwell believes Baptist prostitutes are very attractive when given a $100 donation.
- Falwell’s mother had become unconscious before the termination of the liaison due to her intoxicated state.
- Falwell and his mother continued to have sex many times afterwards despite the fact that his mother was infested with flies.
- Falwell was always drunk when he preached and knew that the religious doctrine he promulgated was false.
Yes, it really was that bad. Don’t believe me? See the whole parody here and feel free to tell me if I’m wrong in the comments below.
Nevertheless, the Supreme Court found for Hustler, ruling that even extraordinarily offensive parody is protected by the First Amendment. How does this relate to SUCOLitis? While the Internet as we know it could barely be conceived of in the 1980s, the principles of the First Amendment don’t change simply because the choice of venue for a parody goes from a magazine to a blog.
Now, again, thanks to the Syracuse University Republic of Fear, the SUCOLitis blog is currently down. But it was up a few days ago and I was able to read most of it (there weren’t that many articles). It consisted of patently satirical stories in the style of The Onion that feature some real names of students and others at SUCOL. It also carried an easily accessible disclaimer page. In my reading, I saw nothing that reached the level of offense that Falwell must have felt upon reading Hustler‘s parody. This isn’t surprising, as there’s no doubt that the folks at Hustler in 1983 were supremely qualified to know how to offend people. But because SUCOLitis doesn’t even come close to that level of ridicule, it should be obvious that this parody would be protected by the First Amendment on a public campus.
Of course, Syracuse has got an answer for that — it’s a private school and is free to ignore the First Amendment! According to the Daily Orange, the law school conducted a debate about whether or not Syracuse should engage in Internet censorship. Pro-censorship debater and first year law student Chris Lattuca had this to say about that pesky Constitution:
But the [First] amendment does not protect the authors of the blog within the confines of the private university, as SU has its own free speech policies and does not have to adhere to the First Amendment, Lattuca said.
Yeah, who wants to go by what the Supreme Court says about free speech when we could instead be guided by the eternal wisdom of whoever is the 2010-2011 assistant associate underdean of speech regulation at Syracuse University?
“If Syracuse University decides to find a way to punish the students who created the SUCOLitis blog, they have every right to do so, and they’re not going to be bound by the U.S. Constitution,” Lattuca said.
What a relief! Glad that’s an option. I presume Lattuca will not complain, then, when Syracuse starts quartering troops in his apartment.