‘Sexual Depravity,’ Student Fees and the Student Press

News about a free-speech dust-up in the department where I used to work at the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire:

This fall, the English department, the publication’s then “administrative home,” voted unanimously to sever its ties to Flip Side, citing, in a statement, interest in “fostering the responsible use of free speech and the mutually respectful community envisioned by the university’s Centennial Plan.” The move left Flip Side in a precarious position in terms of renewing its university funding until Monday, when a new adviser – a geology professor – stepped in.

“That very controversial article that was in the Flip Side, it definitely led to conversations and very strong debate on this campus,” said Kent M. Syverson, the new adviser. “I look at that article and it was juvenile, it was profane, I’m offended by it. I wish he would keep his sexual fantasies to himself, quite frankly, because I’m kind of old school that way. But then when the English department pulls their support for Flip Side because they want Flip Side to exercise ‘responsible use of free speech’…. What responsible use of free speech means to them, and to most people, is ‘You’re going to say what I agree with.’ And I don’t think that’s a very good model for the modern public university.” — Elizabeth Redden, Inside Higher Ed

Prof. Syverson claims that the phrase “responsible use of free speech” actually means “You’re going to say what I agree with,” implying that the Eau Claire English department censored “The Flip Side” by withdrawing its endorsement.

Let’s imagine that some eager undergraduates announce an edgy, new, rough-and-tumble publication devoted to geology.  Imagine that, for several years, it proudly publishes everything from Vernian hollow-earth conspiracy fantasies to geocentric Creationist sermons, celebrating them all as “science,” even as the contributors frequently parade their ignorance of and contempt for scientific principles.

Now imagine that Prof. Syverson and his colleagues in the geology department decide this publication falls so far short of its professional standards that its members no longer wish to associate themselves with it. Does this judgment suppress anyone’s First Amendment rights?

When I was on the Eau-Claire English faculty (1998-2003), sponsoring a student group was one of many possible ways to fulfill the “service” requirement of our contracts.  From what I have seen of “The Flip Side,” I can imagine why every single English professor might want to fill in the “service” column with something other than voluntary association with this particular publication.

“The Flip Side” failed to earn the patronage of every member of a department with explicit training in the evaluation of written texts.  But their professional judgment of “The Flip Side” is not censorship.

It’s a real stretch to latch onto this issue in order to defend the First Amendment.   We cheapen the Bill of Rights if we treat it as a magic power-up pill that shields us from social responsibility.