As a First Amendment lawyer, I know at least two things: one, you have a sacred right as an American to insult the president in whatever colorful language you like, and, two, even some people who are very good about free speech in other contexts are weird about swearing. If you don’t think swearing is ever appropriate, please read no further.
If you’re still reading, you need to see FIRE’s latest video that showcases the handiwork of Sam Houston State University (SHSU) professor Joe E. Kirk, who was so offended by the writing on a student-sponsored “free speech wall” that he slashed it with a box cutter. What drove a professor to commit such a blatant act of both censorship and vandalism? The words “Fuck Obama.”
Language warning, NSFW:
The “free speech wall” was the joint effort of four student organizations: SHSU Lovers of Liberty, Bearkat Democrats, Sam Houston Democratic Socialists, and SHSU College Republicans. The groups were protesting a planned SHSU social media policy that would place broad restrictions on student organizations’ online expression. After obtaining permission from the university, the students assembled the wall on September 22, 2011, and invited everyone on campus to write anything they wanted on it—anything at all. The goal here was to get people to get over themselves and show that when you allow free speech, the sky does not fall. The free speech wall included everything from pro-pot speech, to inspiring quotes, to the Star Wars fan rallying cry “Han shot first!” And, of course, it included a large dose of collegiate swearing.
When Professor Kirk spotted the anti-Obama comment, he confronted Morgan Freeman, the president of SHSU Lovers of Liberty, demanding that it be removed. As Freeman explains in FIRE’s video, she refused to censor the university-approved wall. Kirk then took it upon himself to procure a box cutter, return to the wall, and slice out the word “Fuck.” He left all other instances of the swear (and there were many, including at least one reference to former President Bush) intact. The students called the SHSU Police Department to report the vandalism, but the campus police took Kirk’s side and threatened the students with criminal charges unless they covered up all of the profanity on the wall—thereby effectively shutting down the demonstration.
FIRE quickly came to the students’ defense, and while it does not appear the professor was ever punished, the crazy social media policy was soon repealed. (And, for the record, FIRE fought for free speech just the same when student journalists in Colorado ran an editorial that declared “FUCK BUSH.”)
In my new book Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and The End of American Debate, I devote an entire section to cases involving swearing. I give a nod to the fact that, unlike me, some people see no value in swearing, so I added the tongue in cheek sub-title “Don’t Read if You Can’t Abide Cussing.” I am in full agreement with the Supreme Court in the famous case of Cohen v. California that “one man’s vulgarity is another man’s lyric.” Extending the metaphor, there is a lot of such “music” on campus, with modern college students speaking what Tom Wolfe dubbed a “fuck patois.”
Indeed, if college administrators really cared about swearing, they would punish most students every day. But when you look closer at the cases involving vulgarity, you’ll notice that administrators (and faculty in this case) often only want to punish those uses of “bad words” that mock them or say something they dislike—you shouldn’t believe that a campuses’ claims to police “civility” will ever amount to anything more than that.
Greg Lukianoff is President of The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE)