Threats to Student

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As we wrap up Free Press Week, we take a look today at the unique challenges that college students face when engaging in satire and humor on campus, from humor magazines and editorial cartoons to satirical flyers and blogs. Like newspaper theft and denial of newspaper funding (which we have already explored this week), this is an issue that FIRE has seen time and time again on university campuses over the years.

For any number of reasons, parody, jokes, and satire-whether in print or otherwise—tend to rankle students and university administrators alike as few other forms of expression do. Consequently, student humor is often the target of calls for campus censorship and punishment. This despite the fact that, as FIRE has argued many times, parody, jokes, and satire exist precisely to challenge, to amuse, and even to offend. To witness, in Hustler Magazine v. Falwell, 485 U.S. 46 (1988), the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the First Amendment protects even the most outlandishly offensive parody—in that case, a satirical advertisement suggesting that the Reverend Jerry Falwell lost his virginity in a drunken encounter with his mother in an outhouse. With respect specifically to the higher education setting, the Court has made clear that "the mere dissemination of ideas—no matter how offensive to good taste-on a state university campus may not be shut off in the name alone of ‘conventions of decency.'" Papish v. Board of Curators of the University of Missouri, 410 U.S. 667, 670 (1973). The same holds true, under the "contract theory," at private colleges and universities that have firmly committed themselves to free speech and open discourse on campus.

Yet in spite of these basic principles, we see student satire and humor censored or disciplined far too often, typically in the name of claimed "offense" or under faulty rationales of "harassment."

At Colorado College, for example, two male students were found guilty of violating the school's...