A case for free speech, part II
This column concludes a two-part series on free speech and its enemies at the University.
You know, it’s not always easy to keep “La Nausée” fresh. There’s plenty to say about the college experience in general, and the University experience in particular. But the kinds of messages I want to impart before I don the ol’ cap and gown in May don’t always sync up with what’s going down in the Hub City. For example, it’s not always clear to the average student why they need to hear about their free speech rights and why they are just as strong on campus as they are anywhere else in the United States. After all, examples of people living out the First Amendment’s noble mission abound in the campus setting. People exchange new, strange, uncomfortable, compelling, disruptive, and even despicable ideas all the time — the University abides. Sometimes it takes a moment of tension to perfectly crystallize exactly how the First Amendment functions in college.
Thanks to outgoing Targum columnist Aaron Marcus and the weekly humor paper The Medium, we find ourselves at such a crystallizing moment.
If you haven’t heard, the University is conducting a “bias investigation” against The Medium for a satirical column they penned under Marcus’ byline. The article appropriated Marcus’ voice to offer mock-praise of Adolf Hitler and contrast Marcus’ trademark pro-Israel rhetoric. It’s standard fare as far as satire goes, straight out of the Hustler Magazine v. Falwell playbook. Despite all his attempts to dupe you, you can be sure Marcus qualifies as a public figure in the relevant context, and The Medium piece is within its rights because it criticized the same subject matter that Marcus himself regularly enters into the public discourse.
For those of us familiar with his work, it’s no wonder Marcus pursued the bias claim. Throughout my time as his colleague, I’ve always mentioned to anyone who asked that Marcus’ column was my favorite among any columnist in The Daily Targum, because part of me is convinced he’s just some hyper-devoted troll. He seems hell-bent on fortifying the First Amendment’s place in academia by challenging it in the most ridiculously fallacious ways. You have to tip your hat to that kind of dedication.
He’d love to believe that he’s being singled out for his pro-Israel views, because he’d love to believe his pro-Israel views were earth-shaking enough to warrant satire on their own. The reality is, no matter how obtuse or inflammatory the terms in which Marcus characteristically dresses his reactionary tripe, he most often just toes the garden-variety Islamophobe party line. Rhetorically, it’s full of nausea-inducing flare. But logically, it’s just ho-hum dribble from the kind of person who seems like he might include Googling his own name on his list of favorite pastimes.
So, like I said, it’s not shocking that Marcus is trying to get The Medium censored. What’s shocking is that University President Richard L. McCormick and the University are playing ball.
When McCormick released his statement announcing the investigation, he started out great by acknowledging the “broad protections” federal courts have extended to student media. Great, on the right track so far. After all, the University is a public school, so student media functions largely the same way as regular ol’ media does. McCormick continued: “the article ... is extremely repugnant and offensive.” Fine. McCormick is entitled to his take on the column. I got a chuckle or two out of it, but if he didn’t, such is his right as a consumer. “No individual student should be subject to ... such a piece, regardless of whether First Amendment protections apply.” Oh darn it, Dick. You were doing great for a while there.
In the first half of this series, I discussed the philosophy behind free speech and why it was extra crucial in the university setting, but here’s the CliffsNotes version: Academic freedom is part and parcel with an unfettered spirit of inquiry. To build cultured global citizens is to permit their exposure to the new, the strange and the uncomfortable in the world of ideas. To censor one instance of speech that some deem impermissible is to chill the campus environment for all future expression. Liberal inquiry is the lifeblood of academia. In fact, it’s the only mode of operation that does justice to the most diverse university on the eastern seaboard.
McCormick’s statement is utterly vague, but seems to imply that the University campus falls into some space-time wormhole in the United States, in which First Amendment protections may be disregarded if he says so, under duress from the Aaron Marcus lawsuit machine.
Fortunately, the “University anti-bias policies” he invokes in the statement carry specific clauses that denote no disciplinary action may be taken against the providers of the speech in question, no matter how repugnant it is. So, even though McCormick hasn’t taken disciplinary action off the table, the University’s rulebook already has. Most students don’t seem to be aware of this basic fact: “biased” statements — in and of themselves or when produced in satire — are not criminal. They are not separable offenses under the University Code of Student Conduct. McCormick and President-Designee Robert Barchi should be aware that disciplinary action against The Medium would constitute a violation of the First Amendment. They should also be aware that liberty-loving observers on campus are ready to blow the whistle if they censor a legal act of satire.
Many alleged “adults” offended by The Medium piece will try to spew some rubbish about how their tax dollars fund the University and thus, they get right of first refusal over everything that goes on inside of it. If you encounter such a person, do your civic duty and inform them that their argument is flawed for the same reason that people with opposing political views are still allowed to drive on the same roads as them. Then give them the finger. They should know better.
Alex Lewis is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in political science with a minor in African, Middle Eastern and South Asian languages and literatures. His column, “La Nausée,” runs alternate Thursdays.
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