No Joke: First Amendment Rights Attacked When Satire and Humor Used on Campus

One of the more vexing ironies of the college campus is that the brand of satire that so endears publications like The Onion and entertainer-pundits like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert to college students is often deemed toxic and impermissible when wielded by the students themselves. Trenchant commentaries on contentious topics of race, class, politics, sex, and religion might be acclaimed for their brilliance on The Daily Show, but when student-authored, they not only are condemned on college campuses, they often result in punishment.

The case files of my organization, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), reveal a long trail of punishment of parody and satire, powered by a reactionary and at times deeply anti-intellectual political correctness. Washington State University, for instance, literally bankrolled students’ attempts to shut down (with violent threats) the staging of a student-written musical satirizing The Passion of the Christ. Colorado College found two students guilty of violating the school’s policy against “violence” for posting a faux-informational flyer with cheeky pointers on such disparate topics as sexual positions, “chainsaw etiquette,” and the specs of a sniper rifle — speech that directly parodied a flyer by the “Feminist and Gender Studies Interns,” which poked fun at, among other things, male castration. And just last year, Syracuse University’s law school relentlessly prosecuted and threatened to expel a student involved with a parody blog which emulated The Onion in satirizing law school life and made clear its fake nature—claiming that the site’s clearly satirical speech constituted harassment without even citing the supposedly offending language.

Beyond indulging the false, pernicious sense sadly common among some college students that they possess a “right not to be offended,” the punishment of satirical expression also sends the message that certain topics will only be discussed in pre-approved ways, or else not at all. That was the case at Bucknell University, which not only forbade a conservative student group from holding an “Affirmative Action Bake Sale,” but also said that if the group wanted to hold any event where affirmative action came in for criticism, it would be required to include speakers who disagreed with its views. Never mind that, while Bucknell permanently foreclosed the possibility of affirmative action bake sales, other campuses have seen similar events known as “Gender Wage Gap” bake sales go off without incident, or that groups at other colleges have expanded the usual bake sale formula to criticize preferences given to “legacies,” “recruited athletes,” and “children of the very wealthy.”

Given how much currency hurt feelings can carry on campus, would today’s students or administrators have taken the side of the now-departed Rev. Jerry Falwell in the 1980s when he sued Hustler magazine for running a parody advertisement in which Falwell nostalgically recalled losing his virginity to his own mother in an outhouse? Surely, after all, Falwell was deeply hurt and outraged by the ridicule Hustler visited on him; wasn’t that the point? The Supreme Court rightly ruled unanimously in favor of Hustler’s First Amendment rights — but at Bucknell, Colorado College, Syracuse, and other campuses, Larry Flynt would likely have been punished. 

It may seem a bit far-fetched to think that most college students and administrators (who have been known to ban "inappropriately directed laughter") would flock to Falwell’s side here in order to assert a right not have one’s feelings hurt by satire. Falwell’s brand of evangelical social conservatism is not exactly popular on many campuses, so it’s no skin off their backs to see him and his positions satirized and ridiculed. “Oh, well, it’s not my sacred cow being sent to the slaughter,” they say.

This sentiment is understandable, but it also reveals the bankruptcy of calls on campus to punish students for humor deemed to have crossed socially drawn lines. Not all such humor will be good, for sure, and some of it may be tasteless or downright mean-spirited. But no idea or belief or cultural situation is so sacred as to be immune from criticism, and we have no right not to have our beliefs and practices challenged or called into question, no right not to be made uncomfortable or angry due to such criticism — whether on our television sets, in the editorial pages, or on the quad.

The same rights that protect Dan Savage’s crusade to redefine the word “Santorum” protect the cartoon published in your independent campus paper and the spoof YouTube video created by a fellow student. All we accomplish when we punish such expression on campus is reinforce our inability to talk openly about the major issues we face. Given humor’s power as a point of entry to the discussion of uncomfortable topics and for making us laugh at the contradictions and hypocrisies we put up with and even embrace in our daily lives, such an outcome is anything but a laughing matter.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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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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