Is Campus Censorship the New Normal?

Greg Lukianoff, Will Creeley

Yale University: Censoring ‘Sissy’ and the Muhammad cartoons

Despite its unequivocal public commitments to free speech and academic freedom, Yale University failed to live up to these ideals last year in two well-publicized incidents. One is somewhat comical, the other far more sinister—but each illustrates that the endemic will to censor is all too common on our nation’s campuses.

The less serious case arose from the fabled Yale-Harvard football rivalry. Every year, each university’s student body pulls together to find creative ways of insulting the other before the clash known simply as “The Game.” The tradition dates back to the nineteenth century, and past slogans have included “You can’t spell Harvard without V.D.” and “Harvard Sucks. But So Will I for Crack.” In 2009, Yale’s Freshman Class Council took the Ivy League approach of quoting F. Scott Fitzgerald’s semi-autobiographical novel This Side of Paradise for their shirt. In the novel, one character says “I want to go to Princeton. . . . I don’t know why, but I think of all Harvard men as sissies, like I used to be, and all Yale men as wearing big blue sweaters and smoking pipes.” The enterprising Yale freshmen decided to print “I think of all Harvard men as sissies” on the front of their T-shirt and “WE AGREE” on the back.

The case then followed a familiar pattern: offense was taken and official threats of censorship soon followed. After the design was announced, a few students claimed that “sissies” is an anti-gay slur. It didn’t matter that to most people under the age of sixty “sissy” is not an anti-gay slur but rather a childish and ironic insult, roughly meaning “wimp,” and is as anachronistic as “crumbum” or “broad.” Nor did it matter that Fitzgerald was not using it in the claimed sense (indeed, if he were, the character would have been characterizing himself as gay) or that it was a quote from a celebrated American author. All that mattered was that someone found the quote offensive.

Shortly after receiving complaints, Yale Dean Mary Miller announced that the shirts were “not acceptable” and pulled the design. So much for Yale’s promise to students that they have the right to “think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable.” Quoting Fitzgerald is apparently a bridge too far. In the face of widespread media mockery, Yale President Richard C. Levin and Dean Miller eventually admitted their “regret” for their handling of the situation.

In sharp contrast, however, Yale steadfastly refuses to admit its mistake and reverse its far more troubling decision earlier last fall to censor images of the prophet Muhammad in author Jytte Klausen’s book The Cartoons That Shook the World. The book, an exploration of the violence that followed the publication of cartoons of Muhammad in a Danish newspaper in 2005, was to contain the infamous cartoons. When submitting her manuscript, Klausen made inclusion of the cartoons a prerequisite for publication. Yale University Press accepted Klausen’s terms and thoroughly vetted the manuscript. The manuscript won the unanimous approval of the Press’s University Publications Committee.

However, Yale University intervened and subjected Klausen’s manuscript to an unusual second review, submitting the images contained in the manuscript to a group of anonymous consultants. (Klausen herself was denied the identities of the consultants after refusing to sign a nondisclosure agreement.) Despite the Press’s approval, Yale yanked the images from the book due to what Yale Vice President and Secretary Linda Lorimer admitted to be an unspecified, generalized fear of retaliatory violence.

Campus Censorship: Still Around and Getting Worse

In our work for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting freedom of expression and other basic rights of students and faculty on campus, we often encounter the misperception that campus censorship was strictly a phenomenon of the 1990s and the heyday of political correctness. It’s true that in the late eighties and early nineties, speech codes reared their ugly heads and were promptly defeated in the courts of both law and public opinion. Despite these defeats, however, speech codes have only mushroomed in number in the past two decades, and the incidents of campus censorship have become only more outrageous and absurd.

For example, consider a few of the incidents FIRE encountered in just one year. In 2007, Georgia’s Valdosta State University (VSU) expelled a student for posting a Microsoft Paint collage on Facebook mocking a parking garage that the school’s president had pathetically referred to as part of his “legacy.” VSU claimed that the collage’s reference to the garage as the “President Zaccari Memorial Parking Garage” was an actionable threat upon the president’s life. If there was any doubt that the school was not seriously concerned that the student—a decorated emergency medical technician and a Buddhist—was an actual threat, he was expelled via a note and a copy of the collage slipped under his dorm room door. Not exactly the way a public institution handles an actual threat of violence but precisely how this university decided to silence a critic of its decision to use $30 million of student fees to build a garage.

At Brandeis University, a veteran professor with nearly fifty years of experience in the classroom was found guilty of racial harassment without a hearing. His crime? Discussing the epithet “wetback” in his Latin American studies class to explain where the term came from and criticize its use. The university refuses to overturn the finding to this day.

In an even more absurd case, a student janitor at a public university in Indiana was also found guilty of racial harassment for publicly reading a book that celebrated the defeat of the Ku Klux Klan at the hands of Notre Dame students in a 1924 street fight. Apparently the picture of a Klan rally on the cover offended one of his coworkers, leading an affirmative action officer to find him guilty of “openly reading the book related to a historically and racially abhorrent subject in the presence of your Black coworkers.” The fact that the book was decidedly anti-KKK was deemed irrelevant.

This is only a small selection of the cases FIRE fought in just one year. Thanks to selectively enforced privacy laws, social and administrative pressure to “go along to get along” and often outright threats against students who dare to contemplate taking their censorship public, it is certain that the overwhelming majority of such incidents never see the light of day.

Meanwhile, speech codes are more common than ever. In our latest annual survey of campus speech regulations, FIRE found that 71 percent of colleges maintain codes that would be considered unconstitutional under the First Amendment. While this percentage may strike some readers as impossibly high, it is not. Of the fifteen legal challenges since 2003 brought against codes that FIRE considers unconstitutional, every one has resulted in the university changing its policies or being forced to do so by court order.

Because a full accounting of the instances of collegiate censorship seen by the authors would more than fill a book, for the purposes of this article we will focus on three trends: censorship in the name of sensitivity to Muslims, calls for censorship of secular speech by off-campus actors, and the cen
sorship of religious student groups. These three topics provide a useful overview of the dynamics at work and make clear that there is a distressing willingness to censor unpopular or “controversial” speech at our nation’s colleges.

Censorship of Speech Critical of Islam

As troubling as Yale’s capitulation to violent extremists is, Yale is by no means alone in its choice to place the potentially violent reaction of Muslim extremists above the importance of free speech. In 2006, New York University chose to censor a panel discussion addressing the Muhammad cartoons hosted by the school’s Objectivist Club. The group had planned to display and discuss the cartoons on stage but was instead presented with an ultimatum: either scrap the cartoons or close the event to the many nonstudent guests who had signed up to attend. Students instead displayed blank easels on stage. (Author Greg Lukianoff and Free Inquiry Editor Tom Flynn participated without incident in another discussion in this series on the campus of the University of Chicago.)

Elsewhere, a professor at Century College in Minnesota was forced to put up a curtain over her office door, so that only those passers-by who looked behind it would see the Muhammad cartoons posted there. At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, two student editors of student newspaper The Daily Illini were dismissed after the paper reprinted several Muhammad cartoons. At the University of Chicago, a student was ordered to remove a sketch of Muhammad (caption: “Mo’ Muhammad, Mo’ Problems”) from his dorm-room door and forced to pen an apology. Similarly, a student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute was ordered to remove the Muhammad cartoons from his dorm-room door.

In 2006, a San Francisco State University administrator became possibly the first public official in our country’s history to violate the establishment clause by enforcing Islamic Sharia law. She claimed that students who had stepped on homemade mock-ups of Hezbollah and Hamas flags as a part of an anti-terrorism protest were guilty of “desecrating the name of Allah” after the students were put on trial for “incivility” for their indisputably protected speech. (After all, the Supreme Court has made clear that citizens possess a First Amendment right to burn an American flag; stepping on the flags of designated terrorist organizations is unquestionably protected.) After months of pressure from FIRE, the school found the students not guilty of “incivility” on First Amendment grounds. What’s more, the subsequent lawsuit brought against SFSU by the students in federal court resulted in an opinion overturning the California State University system’s “civility” code.

Meanwhile, Tufts University has yet to overturn the finding of racial harassment it leveled against a conservative student newspaper that, in 2007, ran a satirical ad critical of what it saw as the overly rosy presentation of Islam during the university’s “Islamic Awareness Week.” The ad quoted language directly from the Qur’an and made other factual assertions, including reference to the Islamic world’s participation in the slave trade, the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, Saudi Arabia’s oppression of women, and the fact that numerous Islamic theocracies punish homosexuality by death. Under pressure from FIRE, Tufts President Lawrence Bacow eventually backed away from the punishment for printing the ad. However, the university has steadfastly refused to overturn the finding of racial harassment. The newspaper’s guilty finding was remarkable in that it was the first time in FIRE’s experience that a publication stating verifiable (if unflattering) facts was found to constitute actionable harassment. It is difficult to imagine any content, let alone actual facts, published in a student newspaper as legitimately constituting harassment, as no student is under any obligation to read the paper.

Speech critical of Israel can also sometimes provoke threats of administrative censorship and infringements on academic freedom. In 2009, the University of California at Santa Barbara subjected Professor William Robinson to a months-long investigation after he forwarded students in his Sociology of Globalization class an e-mail that compared the Holocaust to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. Two students filed formal complaints against Robinson after consulting with the Anti-Defamation League. In the face of criticism from fellow faculty, FIRE, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, and the American Association of University Professors, the school’s chancellor announced that the charges had been dropped.

Conservative Censors

Those who graduated from college prior to the political correctness boom tend to conceive of free speech on campus along ideological lines: liberals are in favor of unfettered free expression, while conservatives are more apt to call for censorship. But starting in the 1980s, this expectation came under challenge by increased calls from the Left for punishment and even outright prohibition of speech offensive to women, minorities, and historically disadvantaged groups. While the powerful proscriptions of both the First Amendment and a popular belief in free speech prevented the odd bedfellows of pro-censorship liberals and conservatives from enjoying much success in American society at large, “liberal” theories of censorship—including “hate speech” theory—gained great traction at America’s colleges and universities. Speech codes soon followed, as well as the tendency on campus to punish speech that is either socially conservative or mocks the academy’s often liberal sensibilities.

This is not to say that conservatives do not attempt to silence liberal speech on campus. However, such attempts are less frequent and usually led by off-campus actors. For example, consider the 2009 backlash against a student-run campus screening of a pornographic film at the University of Maryland. Students had planned an event that included a lecture from a Planned Parenthood representative, then a showing of Pirates II: Stagnetti’s Revenge, claimed to be the most expensive pornographic movie ever made. Such paired events are fairly common at campuses across the country and are often advertised to students, as this one was, as an alternative to drinking. Nevertheless, the university came under intense pressure from the Maryland Senate to cancel the showing; state legislators even introduced an amendment to a school funding bill that cut off funding to any state university that “sponsors, sanctions, promotes, endorses, or allows a public screening of any film that is marketed as a XXX-rated adult film.” The university promptly cancelled the event, apparently forgetting that Pirates II is likely protected under the First Amendment, that the school had screened pornographic films before, and that the event had a clearly educational component.

More recently, in April of 2010, a drama professor at Tarleton State University in Texas cancelled a planned student performance of award-winning American playwright Terrence McNally’s Corpus Christi, which presents a Christ-like character as a gay man. The performance had been subjected to withering criticism from local citizens and outside groups, including the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property. Even Texas Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, a Republican, issued a statement calling for the play’s censorship since it contained “acts that are morally reprehensible to the vast majority of Americans.” After receiving hundreds of e-mails, a number of which allegedly threatened violence, the professor cancelled the performance.

Perhaps the most sensational example of calls for censorship by off-campus conservatives occurred in March of 2009 in response to a lecture at the University of Oklahoma by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. In advance of his appearance, Dawkins, famous in part for his criticism of religion, was the subject of not one but two resolutions considered by the Oklahoma state legislature. The resolutions condemned Dawkins and characterized the theory of evolution as “an unproven and unpopular theory.” Dawkins’s lecture nevertheless went off without a hitch, and he spoke to an audience of thousands at the university as scheduled. However, in the wake of Dawkins’s appearance, state legislators requested extensive documentation from both Dawkins and the university, ostensibly in an attempt to confirm that he had not received any compensation for the talk. (He hadn’t.) The fact that such extensive legislative investigations have been considered unconstitutional since the days of the House Committee on Un-American Activities was seemingly irrelevant to the Oklahoma legislature.

Religious Speech Under Fire

While the Oklahoma legislature’s decision to investigate Dawkins was based in part on his being an outspoken atheist, we have not observed a trend toward punishing atheistic speech in recent years. Rather, FIRE has far more often had to defend explicitly religious speech—and typically, evangelical Christians are the speakers being censored.

Examples abound. In 2004, the Christian Student Fellowship at Florida’s Indian River Community College was forbidden from showing Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ at a group meeting. The reason for forbidding a screening of the world’s highest grossing religious film of all time? The college claimed that the film was “controversial” and “R-rated.” But the college had allowed R-rated films to be screened in the past year. And at the same time the college banned The Passion of the Christ, it was hosting a student production that included a skit called “Fucking for Jesus,” which centered on masturbating to a painting of Jesus Christ. Both the film and the play are and should be protected, but the double standard demonstrated was quite brazen.

In a 2006 incident at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire, residence assistants were ordered by university administrators to stop leading Bible studies in the dorms. The rule was instituted even though the studies were conducted on the residence assistants’ own time and were fully voluntary for all participants. The university’s rationale was that residence assistants leading such studies might not seem “approachable” to other students.

Student-on-student censorship was displayed at Northern Kentucky University, the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point, and Missouri State University, where pro-life groups who had received permission to set up displays of popsicle-stick crosses to symbolize their opposition to abortion were horrified to find their fellow students destroying their work. At Northern Kentucky, students were even encouraged by a professor “to express their freedom-of-speech rights” by destroying the symbolic speech of their classmates.

Because of the unpopularity of their position on many campuses, pro-life groups often face hurdles that other groups on campus do not. Recently, the student group Duke Students for Life was barred at the last minute from holding a planned discussion on student motherhood at Duke’s Women’s Center. The director of the Women’s Center explained the abrupt cancellation to the group by informing them that their presence had upset other students. And at the University of Arizona this spring, Students for Life’s application for recognition as an official club was denied because the group sought to require that voting members share the belief that all life is sacred. The group’s would-be founder was told that “organizations cannot require participants to fulfill or abide by specific principles,” despite the fact that the university recognized student groups including the College Republicans, Students for Justice in Palestine, Students Organized for Animal Rights, Voices of Opposition, Liberty in North Korea, Young Democrats, and Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán, all of which presumably require that students share core group beliefs.


Our popular conception of the American college experience revolves around a student’s exposure to new ideas: the all-night dialogue with a roommate, the provocative column in the student newspaper, the campus rally that introduces a fresh perspective on the issues of the day. At the end of four years, diploma in hand, fresh-faced college graduates are supposed to be ready to participate in the larger world, having tested and refined their beliefs through continuous engagement with those of their classmates.

But in 2010, the college campus is no longer “peculiarly the marketplace of ideas,” as the Supreme Court once opined. Instead, colleges and universities have become our nation’s foremost censors: suppressing student dialogue via unconstitutional and illiberal speech codes, enforcing a rigid brand of political correctness, and teaching students that the correct way to answer speech with which they disagree is by shouting it down, not engaging in reasoned debate.

The consequences of collegiate censorship are likely to be profound. By teaching students that they possess an illusory, extra-constitutional “right not to be offended,” colleges and universities have privileged faux outrage over meaningful dialogue and romanticized censorship of unpopular speech as being not only effective and efficient but in fact morally required. As a generation of college graduates trained to silence “offensive” speech assumes its station in our society, increased cultural polarization is an all but inevitable outcome.

Greg Lukianoff

Greg Lukianoff is an attorney and president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).

Will Creeley

Will Creeley is an attorney and FIRE's director of legal and public advocacy.

Yale University: Censoring ‘Sissy’ and the Muhammad cartoons Despite its unequivocal public commitments to free speech and academic freedom, Yale University failed to live up to these ideals last year in two well-publicized incidents. One is somewhat comical, the other far more sinister—but each illustrates that the endemic will to censor is all too common …

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