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.
Don’t get me wrong; Syracuse is a private university. It can act more or less like a dictatorship if it wants to. Such a place would have a hard time attracting students and professors, but some religious schools do function under very strict regimes. Nevertheless, that’s not what Syracuse says it will be. It promises free speech to students — its own student handbook says that “Syracuse University is committed to the principle that freedom of expression is essential to the search for truth, and consequently welcomes and encourages the expression of different and varied opinions, and of dissent.” The investigation into the SUCOLitis blog and its authors gives the lie to this assertion. But Lattuca isn’t done:
SUCOLitis is just another form of bullying, Lattuca said. He said a post on the blog about the current first-year law class being the best-looking and “especially slutty” was offensive. He said students should not have to wait until the blog becomes more extreme and offensive to take action.
So the authors of a blog managed not simply to offend but to “bully” every single woman in the first-year law class at Syracuse. Presumably the blog will next post an anonymous PayPal account to which these students can send their lunch money.
“The thing about going too far is you haven’t gone too far until it’s too late,” Lattuca said. “We don’t look at these blogs and say ‘Wow, this is wildly offensive’ until something bad has happened.”
While this is nearly incoherent, Lattuca seems to be arguing that if you suspect someone is going to “go too far” by saying mean things on the Internet, that suspicion should be enough to censor and punish them before they do “go too far,” right? I think I saw a movie about this once.
Assistant professor of law and LGBT studies Tucker Culbertson, also a member of Team Censorship, also points out that the blog is racist, or something:
One of the problems with SUCOLitis is many of the people it pokes fun at are “women or people of color” when the law school is “blindingly white,” Culbertson said. Those students who are most vulnerable should not have racial and ethnic slurs thrown in their faces, although derogatory names for sex, race and sexual practices are thrown around at SU often, he said.
I am pretty sure that in my reading of the blog, the closest it came to a “slur” was identifying someone as “Hispanic” or “Latino,” and the jokes didn’t depend on racial stereotypes. The blog as a whole was certainly less dependent on racial stereotypes than a certain George Lucas movie that I refuse to mention on principle. (Hint.)
But the students should not be punished for writing the blog, Culbertson said. Although expelling the students would be much easier than going through the remedy process, it would not be a successful means to handle the situation, he said.
“I’m interested in restorative justice as a manner by which not simply to defend a community but to make one,” Culbertson said.
So Culbertson is opposed to expelling students for being insufficiently politically correct not because it would be morally wrong, or completely insane, but because it would be too easy! Instead, he seems to want to put them to work, using “restorative justice” not just to “defend” but to “make” a community. Last time I saw people doing what Culbertson seems to want the blog authors to do, they looked something like this. While it would undoubtedly be funny to see Syracuse law students out on the road picking up trash, or whatever the PC equivalent of that is (maybe giving seminars on how all men are part of “rape culture’?), I’m still not persuaded that it’s an appropriate remedy for the “crime” of writing Internet parodies.
Syracuse has its defenders of free speech as well, such as Roy Gutterman, director of the Tully Center for Free Speech, and the editorial board of the Daily Orange itself. And thank goodness for them. But, as so often happens, it’s the inmates who seem to be in charge of this higher ed asylum. Nobody forced Syracuse to build a giant building with the First Amendment emblazoned on the side. Having done so, however, one would think that the university would at least have the shame to try to live up to it.