Thursday, April 10, 2008

Office Doors and Free Speech

There are two types of college professors: those who post cartoons and slogans on their office doors, and those who do not. I fall into the latter category, though I generally have no problem with my colleagues who decorate their academic portals with pithy observations from "Dilbert" or "Ziggy" or even some hack editorial cartoonist. I simply prefer not to have my students know too much about me, other than what I choose to present in class. More important, I don’t want to have crowds milling around my office chattering and otherwise interrupting my deep intellectual reveries ("Why did I draft Pedro Martínez when Daisuke was still on the board?").

For the most part, office decorations fall safely into First Amendment territory. I say this guardedly, however, since I believe that a college campus is not the equivalent of the public square and that office doors are state property (we're assuming non-private institutions here, since the argument is constitutional). I think it is possible, for example, to argue that the walls inside the office are more protected than a doorway visible from the hall, or even that one's office merits more scrutiny than the bumper of one's personal vehicle. But generally I don't think we should be looking for reasons to restrict anyone's free expression.

I bring this up because features a story this morning about one Richard Crandall, a social sciences professor at Lake Superior State University in Michigan. It seems that Professor Crandall is a political conservative who posts provocative comic strips and other materials on his office door. Here's how IHE describes it:

"Items included a photo of Ronald Reagan, pictures mocking Hillary Clinton, a sign posting a 'Notice of the Weekly Meeting of the White, Male, Heterosexual Faculty and Staff Association (WMHFSA),' and various cartoons about abortion, Islamic terrorism and other topics. One depicts two hooded women looking over a photo album. One says, 'And that’s my youngest son, Hakim. He’ll be martyring in the fall.' The other replies, 'They blow up so fast.'"

The university has evidently demanded the removal of at least some of this material, claiming that it may cause a hostile environment for, presumably, gay and Muslim students. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has now entered the fray with the predictable argument that Lake Superior's actions constitute viewpoint discrimination, pointing out that liberal professors who wallpaper their doors have not been similarly sanctioned. According to the article in IHE, left-wing faculty members have displayed an "'Exxpose Exxon' slogan and an 'Honor Veterans: No More War' bumper sticker, while another door bears a sign asking if the Bush administration works for 'Big Oil and Gas'."

My first thought is that if FIRE scoured the campus and those were the most offensive liberal paraphernalia they could find, either they weren't trying very hard or Lake Superior State University is a pretty mild-mannered place. It would be hard for even the most hyper-sensitive conservative to feel personally intimidated or otherwise abused by those rather mainstream sentiments. I guess maybe if someone's mom worked for Exxon he might be a little out of sorts, but really, if that's the best FIRE can do, maybe they ought to mount a less hackneyed argument.

Regardless, the real question here is not whether liberals are getting away with murder while conservatives are being ticketed for jaywalking. Rather, the issue is the degree to which the First Amendment protects speech that creates a hostile environment and expresses sentiments that undermine a university's mission. The other point, of course, is whether Professor Crandall's entryway offerings actually crossed that line, but let's leave that to the side for a moment.

The judicial system has already made clear that speech and expression which would otherwise be protected may, in fact, be prohibited in the workplace. I once saw a highly offensive bumper sticker on a car that read, "No More Mr. Nice Guy. Down on Your Knees, Bitch". I believe that the unqualified jackass who chose to adorn his vehicle in such a manner is protected by the First Amendment. I also believe that if he were a college professor (little chance of that, I suspect) and attached the sticker to his office door, the administration would have every right to order him to remove it and sanction him if he did not. This would be true not only because it would likely fall afoul of sexual harassment law, but because it would undermine the university's mission to provide a learning environment free of personal ridicule based on sex, race, ethnicity, etc.

Obviously, this doesn't mean we set the standard around our most easily offended students and employees. But we are not, as the right-wing keeps reminding us, in the self-expression business; we are in the education business. And those things that make students feel unwelcome on the basis of who they are may, in fact, interfere with a college's ability to perform its primary function. I think, for instance, we would all agree that no professor should be allowed to feature a Confederate or Nazi flag anywhere in the officeplace. I would feel the same way about any colleague who adorned his or her door with a slogan such as "White People are Pigs".

So we've already dismantled much of the usual argument made by groups such as FIRE. The remaining question, then, is whether Professor Crandall went too far in his hallway postings. The short answer is, I'm not sure. Clearly, Ronald Reagan's portrait is acceptable, as is a cartoon ridiculing Hillary Clinton, so long as the attack is primarily based on her politics and doesn't, say, use the B-word. The anti-abortion pieces are also likely protected, as are any other conservative equivalents of "Exxpose Exxon" and "No More War". I'd probably even give Professor Crandall a pass on the "White, Male, Heterosexual Faculty and Staff Association" so long as it did not specifically attack gay and lesbian students.

The anti-Muslim cartoon, however, troubles me. On the one hand, it is clearly a statement against terrorism. On the other hand, I might want to know how Muslim students react to it. Do they regard it as primarily political or primarily racial? Do they feel singled out for ridicule and do they consider the cartoon to be part of a broader hostile environment in Professor Crandall's classroom or on the Lake Superior campus?

The typical right-wing response to all this is to tell the offended students to grow a tougher skin. But that sort of argument gets us nowhere. We all agree—at least I think we do—that some forms of expression (the swastika, for one) have no place in the halls of academia. Therefore, it is no longer a question of unfettered free expression, but rather where and when to draw the line.

1 comment:

Papa Giorgio said...


I know for a fact that there are way more professors who teach that "white people are pigs" than professors who teach the other way around. I just hope that the disparity in the bias in academia will be better shown after "Expelled" is released.