Trust me, I’m a Doctor: First Amendment responsibilities


Dr. Leeper

A state college campus provides a substantial challenge to administrators and students alike. Given it is a state-run institution, employees of the college, at all levels, are constrained by the First Amendment when responding to student speech.

Expression that administrators find merely “offensive,” “objectionable,” “indecent” or even “hateful” is free from censorship or control.

In order to be legitimately constrained by a state actor, student speech must fall into a restricted category: libel, fighting words (insults targeted at individuals), threats, obscenity (pervasive lewd imagery) and seditious speech (calls for imminent violence against the government).

Also, if your speech physically disrupts the mission of the college (teaching and learning) the school may shut you down or move you to a more appropriate location.

Beyond that, under our Constitution, college staff have to let it fly. This is a burden for everyone.

Administrators have to resist the impulse to exert their authority to suppress what they merely find disagreeable; students have to practice a shred of responsibility and not push their freedom to absurd levels, making everyone’s life generally unpleasant.

As Spiderman said, “with great freedom comes great responsibility.” I think.

Take, for example, Homecoming. That week is full of events, gatherings, a parade and general merriment pregnant with expression. During these activities, given children and alums are present, there is a desire to keep it clean.

About a decade ago, one student group decided to push the boundaries of propriety with their Homecoming banner. The theme that year: Blast from the Past. The opponent: the Northern State Wolves. I assume the organizers intent was to generate wholesome banners of juke boxes, sock hops and long cars with big fins.

What this group produced: a banner depicting the Northern State mascot (a wolf) with his pants down, in a vulnerable posture. Our Willy was pictured behind the wolf, with its pants down too, quite apparently engaged in amorous pursuits. No animal naughty parts were exposed. But, clearly, some sexual activity was occurring among species. The slogan on the banner: not “Blast from the Past,” but, “Blast from the —” (word for buttocks).

UH OH. Friday morning the students proudly hung the banner from a statue in front of the Humanities Building. Within minutes, between classes, a raucous ensued.

Students, not administrators, demanded its removal. One student scaled the statue and ripped it down; the banners’ creator (an art major) snatched it back and marched to the student center—where he unfurled it alongside the more innocent displays.

At this point, an unnamed administrator who shall remain unnamed (although he may or not be president now), reasoned with the student that perhaps it would be good for everyone if this banner found its way to his dorm room. After some discussion, the student complied.

Kudos to the unnamed administrator for talking through the issue with the student—that is education, not mindless punishment.

The student, of course, showed his appreciation by dragging to the banner to the football game the next day and hanging it on the stadium fence.

An agitated staff member asked for its removal, saying this was not a forum for free speech; the student proceeded to hang it from a tree near the field.

Was the student correct to assert his perceived his free speech rights so vigorously? Should the administrators have taken him away in leg irons and placed him on double secret probation? This one ended about as it should—into the ether. No one remembers, no one cares.

In this context, consider the phone app“Yik Yak.” What an utterly free, yet potentially destructive method of expression (reminiscent of last year’s “WSC Confessions” on Twitter). Students, remember this: not all expression is protected. Be most aware of LIBEL, when you depict something as truth, knowing its false, and you post it anyway. When you name names, and make damaging claims, you expose yourself to punishment.

Lastly, understand just because it’s free doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. Try to be clever, have fun, but bear in mind who you are hurting. You have rights, but be smart about it.