Public university censors student’s fliers protesting censorship

Saginaw Valley State University, a public university located in Michigan, boldly and ironically censored a university student’s flyers about censorship earlier this year.  (Source).

SVSU recently adopted a new policy requiring that all flyers receive approval from the Student Life office prior to posting.  The policy requires that, among other things, the flyers “be in good taste, free from profanity, nudity, or sexually suggestive graphics/phrasing.”  The vague wording of the policy does not define “in good taste.”

Student Daniel Chapman submitted flyers in protest to the new policy, which stated, “”Fuck Censorship, Fuck Oppression, Fuck the Draft. Fight for Free Speech and Political Expression at SVSU and Elsewhere.”  Chapman showed his knowledge of the First Amendment in submitting the flyers, which he explained purposely paralleled the language at issue in Cohen v. California.  In Cohen, the appellant was a Vietnam War protestor who wore a jacket embroidered with the words “Fuck the draft” into a California courthouse.  Cohen was convicted of disturbing the peace by offensive conduct and was sentenced to 30 days in jail.  The Supreme Court overturned the lower court’s ruling that the jacket was offensive conduct, reasoning instead that the jacket was speech protected by the First Amendment.

Despite this, SVSU’s legal counsel informed Chapman that his flyer would not be approved because it contained the word “fuck.”

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education took up Chapman’s cause.  Thus far, two letters to the school remain unanswered. FIRE plans to take the issue up the chain of command.

7 Responses to Public university censors student’s fliers protesting censorship

  1. Ancel De Lambert says:

    It’s like raaaaay-aaaiiiiiiiiiinnn!!!!

  2. dan says:

    “Over the summer, SVSU adopted a new posting policy that requires all flyers to be approved by the Student Life office” wait..students have a life now?

  3. MKC says:

    I think Cohen v. California, 403 U.S. 15 (1971) is distinguishable at least in part:

    In the first place, Cohen was tried under a statute applicable throughout the entire State. Any attempt to support this conviction on the ground that the statute seeks to preserve an appropriately decorous atmosphere in the courthouse where Cohen was arrested must fail in the absence of any language in the statute that would have put appellant on notice that certain kinds of otherwise permissible speech or conduct would nevertheless, under California law, not be tolerated in certain places.

    The campus policy is narrower and more specific than the statute in Cohen. As-applied to Chapman, I think the policy provided adequate notice. (And I’m not sure whether the plurality opinion in Chicago v. Morales, 527 U.S. 41 (1999), where vagueness gets special 1A scrutiny, will hold up under the current court).

    Rather than Cohen, I think the policy opens a whole can of prior restraint whoopass–procedural safeguards and all. And there the “in good taste” bit would create an insuperable hurdle for the university, I think, because it is too non-specific to be enforceable. See Lakewood v. Plain Dealer Publishing, 486 U.S. 750, 757 (1988) (“unfettered discretion” in the prior restraint context is impermissible).

    I don’t think the Tinker standard should apply to University students (material disruption & reasonable anticipation of such disruption, which the word “fuck” may qualify for), but i don’t know the seventh circuit precedent well enough to say whether a court would apply it here applied here, but that also has to be factored in to any analysis.

  4. Pretty much par for the course; colleges like to appear like they’re maintaining an innocence bubble for their naive students, but then they also invite people to hold seminars on sex toys (as long as they don’t say “fuck,” presumably).

  5. alpha4centauri says:

    All the college age people I know think the entire concept of offensive words is lame, like not saying “Voldemort.” Don’t college administrators talk to their own students? I heard the word “fuck” on Saturday Night Live last weekend and they didn’t even bleep it out.

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