Sunday, October 2, 2011

"Fuck Obama" and the Mad Mathematician

In doing a little research for my last piece about the kerfuffle at UW-Stout, I came across another article at Popehat, this one by Patrick, about freedom of expression on yet another college campus. This one particularly caught my eye because the university in question in Sam Houston State University, my current institution’s arch-rival. The Popehat article gives only the bare bones; the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) site has more of the details.

It seems that a coalition of student groups from across the political spectrum—the SHSU Lovers of Liberty, Bearkat Democrats, Young Democratic Socialists, and College Republicans—joined together a fortnight or so ago to protest a proposed university social media policy. The groups co-sponsored a “free speech wall” on which students could write anything they chose. You see where this is going, don’t you, Gentle Reader? Post-adolescents, complete freedom to say anything… somebody is going to think the quintessence of wit is to use the so-called F-word. Aaaaaaannnd: they did. A letter from FIRE’s VP for Programs to SHSU President Dana L. Gibson spells out some of what appeared on that wall:
Many students wrote a variety of political and other messages on the wall, including “don't hate against Gays ...,” “If you make less than $200,000 Republicans don't care about you,” “God so loved the world He sent His one and only son ...,” “Best thing I've ever seen at this raggedy school!!!,” “Life's not a bitch, Life is a beautiful woman ...,” “Han Solo Shot First,” “My boyfriend is a liar!,” “Legalize Weed!!!,” “NAZI PUNKS FUCK OFF!!!,” and “FUCK OBAMA.” In response to “FUCK OBAMA,” others continued the conversation. One person wrote “BUSH” under “OBAMA.” Another added “you,” apparently to signify saying “fuck you” to the person who had written “FUCK OBAMA.”
You can see part of this, at least, in the photo above. Anyway, along comes Math professor Joe E. Kirk, who was offended by the Anglo-Saxonism, specifically in reference to the President of the United States. He demanded the profanity be removed or covered up. The students refused. Kirk then went to his office, returned with a box cutter (yes, really) and performed a fuck-echtomy.

As far as I can tell, no one has actually asked Dr. Kirk exactly why he did that. He’s not a young man (if his college graduation year is an indicator, he’s in his early seventies), and the expletive may have actually bothered him. Maybe he’s a die-hard Democrat—apparently the wall featured a number of f-bombs, but only one was cut out. Or maybe “fuck [anybody but the POTUS]” is OK.

Anyway, according to Morgan Freeman (that would be the president of the SHSU chapter of Lovers of Liberty, not the one you’ve heard of), the students then:
called [their] advisor, who called one of the deans. The dean said to call the police because Joe Kirk had used a potential weapon. The police (UPD) came and interviewed us and then went to talk to Joe Kirk. They returned and said we had to either cover up the profanity or take it down. There was too much profanity to cover it all up. We decided if we were not really free to exercise our freedom of speech, then there was no point in having a free speech wall. So we removed the paper, and then disassembled the wall, packed it up and left.
And there you have it: a neat little free-speech episode with no one to root for.

The administration? Well, they were willing to create a social media policy that was imposed from above without appropriate consultation with students, staff, or faculty. It’s also incompetently written: if parallelism means anything anymore (and if the draft version posted online hasn’t been corrected), there’s a section that reads: “[The] University claims the right to remove comments and content from social media accounts if they… Do not violate the terms of use/service of the social platforms you use.” (pp. 8-9 of the pdf file) Yes, that’s right, you’ll be censored if you do not violate the TOS of the provider. That’s not what was intended, but that’s what it says. And the ultimate response to this brouhaha? “The incident… is currently under investigation.” I feel better already.

The student protesters? Well, they got their skivvies in a twist over a policy that is really only intended to protect the university from unauthorized or inappropriate use of the school’s brand: you can say whatever you want, but you can’t say it as a representative of SHSU. As an administrator of our School of Theatre Facebook page, I’ve removed spam, and I would, if necessary, remove posts which would reflect poorly on our program… whatever the reason. There is no right being violated by removing graffiti, whether the medium is paint or a Twitter feed.

Moreover, they had to have known that their little exercise in “free speech” would degenerate into a battle of who could say “fuck” with the most fervor. While there are a couple of expressions on the wall that actually qualify as political speech—the protection of which was the real intention of the 1st amendment—most are, to use a term that’s probably literally true in some instances, sophomoric. There’s no law against that, and their right to free expression should not be abridged simply because they nothing of value to say, but it would be nice if they didn’t feel so compelled to demonstrate their vacuity.

Professor Kirk? He had the right to be upset, but not to wield a box-cutter. Vandalism isn’t cool. The end.

The dean? Suggesting that the real problem was that Dr. Kirk “had used a potential weapon”? Assuming Ms. Freeman reported the dean’s words correctly, this is right up there with the stupidity manifested at UW-Stout. Other potential weapons that clearly were not used as such would also include the hot sauce in Prof. Kirk’s chili and the car he drove home in. Dean = Moron.

The campus police? The words on the protest wall were pretty clearly intended for no reason other than to be offensive, but they didn’t rise to the level of disorderly conduct, regardless of what the university’s Deputy Police Chief may think. The Houstonian, the student newspaper, reports that the statute in question reads as follows: “A person commits an offense if he intentionally or knowingly; (1) uses abusive, indecent, profane, or vulgar language in a public place, and the language by its very utterance tends to incite an immediate breach of the peace.” The first part happened; the second didn’t. It wasn’t the language that incited a breach of the peace, and whatever breach there was wasn’t immediate.

Still, we can make a case that the situation at least neared a grey area. It was the dithering that really looks bad: clearly there was no violation if the investigating officers didn’t think so when they first showed up. Leaving and then returning with threats is tacky at best.

This case is nowhere near as clear-cut as the one at UW-Stout. There, no reasonable person could possibly have read the “Firefly” poster as a threat. Here, well, “fuck” bothers some people, especially when applied as an insult to the President. Moreover, while a university does not have the right to limit student speech per se, they do have a right to maintain order on their campus and to apply rules of conduct for the use of university facilities. It is this same principle that allows universities to forbid firearms or alcohol on campus, or that allows me to throw someone out of my classroom or my office, even though they’re in a state-owned building.

The students in question are jerks. But they’re politically active post-adolescents: it’s sort of their job. Still, the conflation between that which is legal and that which ought to be done continues to be troubling. Professor Kirk needs to chill, possibly in retirement. The campus police need to enforce the law and the Constitution, not their personal agendas. And the administration would do well to talk to, instead of at, students and faculty. Because they fucked this shit up.

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