Campus Security Threatens Free Speech

What does it take to have a “threat assessment team” called on you? If you’re on a college campus these days, not much.

University of Wisconsin-Stout professor James Miller found this out merely by hanging two satirical posters outside his office door. His case, and others like it, illustrates just how far universities are willing to go to suppress harmless expression under a false rationale of preserving “safety.”

Miller’s ordeal at Stout began when the tenured professor of theater posted an image of the actor Nathan Fillion from the television show Firefly, along with a popular quote from the show, which in full read “You don't know me, son, so let me explain this to you once: If I ever kill you, you'll be awake. You'll be facing me. And you'll be armed." Incomprehensibly, the chief of Stout’s police department removed the poster, citing its reference to “killing.” (See here for more on the quote’s context.) 

The officer warned Miller that if he posted such a message again, he could find himself arrested for “disorderly conduct.” Miller responded by posting a satirical anti-fascism cartoon which read in part that "Fascism can cause blunt head trauma and/or violent death. Keep fascism away from children and pets." The same officer removed this poster as well, claiming there was “a reasonable expectation that it will cause a material and/or substantial disruption of school activities and/or be constituted as a threat.” The officer informed Miller that she had notified Stout’s “threat assessment team” of his repeat offenses.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), where I work, led a massive public campaign in favor of Miller’s rights, and Stout became an object of national ridicule. Stout ultimately relented, but still wrongly claimed that its actions had been legitimate. Disturbingly, Stout explicitly cited tragic campus shootings as a defense; one spokesman told a newspaper that "Our action has to be viewed in the context of post-Virginia Tech and post-Northern Illinois." 

This is both absurd and insulting. Yet Stout is far from alone in name-dropping Northern Illinois and Virginia Tech. Universities frequently seem to act out of the belief that labeling protected speech as “threatening” confers a kind of benediction that allows them to toss basic rights to the wind.

Universities should heed the cautionary example of Valdosta State University, whose former president, Ronald Zaccari, was found by a federal court to have lost his qualified immunity as a public official because of his blatant violation of the rights of student Hayden Barnes. Zaccari personally expelled Barnes and labeled him a “clear and present danger” to campus safety after the student protested Zaccari’s planned construction (with $30 million of student fees) of new campus parking garages by posting a satirical Facebook collage titled "S.A.V.E. – Zaccari Memorial Parking Garage." The word “memorial” in the title, among other things, was absurdly interpreted by the president as a threat.

Losing qualified immunity means that Zaccari can be held personally liable for monetary damages in Barnes’ lawsuit. (The case is currently on appeal before the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.) Yet, universities continue to employ the “threat” doctrine to investigate, punish, and chill protected speech.

Western Washington University student Jacob Ramirez could have become the next casualty of higher education’s security complex, all on the basis of a minor written protest. After receiving a parking ticket from WWU’s parking services division, Ramirez paid his fine, writing — both on his personal check and on the ticket with which he mailed it — the message “Fuck the Police.” Two weeks later he was informed that he was under investigation for possibly violating WWU’s "Harassment and/or Threats of Violence" policy, and summoned to a meeting. FIRE quickly wrote to WWU, making clear that Ramirez’s speech came nowhere near meeting the Supreme Court’s definition of a true threat.

To its credit, WWU quickly reversed course and unabashedly admitted it had erred. It was also admirably forthright in admitting that it was “inappropriate” to use its student conduct code as the basis for hauling a student into a meeting to discuss protected speech. More universities need to follow WWU’s example of acknowledging mistakes, but no university should be making such mistakes when dealing with settled law regarding students’ free speech rights.

Surely universities have an important task in keeping their campuses safe, but not at the expense of fundamental rights. When a better-safe-than-sorry mentality takes precedence over respecting students’ free speech and due process rights, universities turn themselves into the true threats.

Photo Credit: Foundation for Individual Rights in Education

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Peter Bonilla

Peter Bonilla is the Director of the Individual Rights Defense Program at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE; thefire.org), a nonprofit, non-partisan organization committed to defending the free speech and individual liberties of college students and faculty across the political and ideological spectrum. Peter worked as the literary manager of Philadelphia's InterAct Theatre Company prior to joining FIRE in 2008. Peter writes in his spare time, and has received a fellowship in playwriting from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. Had he known a little bit more about the Statue of Liberty, he would have made a nice sum of money on 'Jeopardy!' in 2009. His B.A., in Theater Arts and Economics, is from the University of Pennsylvania. An expatriate of Washington, DC, he lives in Philadelphia.

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