Northern Kentucky University Backs Free Speech, Against a Professor's Attempt to Suppress It:

InstaPundit reports, and reproduces the University president's e-mail:

I am writing to comment on the recent destruction of an approved campus display created by the Northern Kentucky Right to Life student organization.

One of the important roles that a university must play is to be a forum for debate and analysis concerning the important issues of the day. Often these issues are surrounded by strident rhetoric and strong emotions which makes it even more incumbent on the university to create and nurture an intellectual environment in which reason and evidence prevail and where all points of view can be heard.

Northern Kentucky University has a distinguished record of addressing important public issues in a balanced way. We are proud that, as a campus, we are not the captive of one ideology or point of view. At their best, universities are not places of comfortable conformity. They are places where ideas collide as students and faculty search for deeper understandings and perspectives.

While the University supports the right to free speech and vigorous debate on public issues, we cannot condone infringement of the rights of others to express themselves in an orderly manner. By leading her students in the destruction of an approved student organization display, Professor Sally Jacobsen's actions were inconsistent with Northern Kentucky University's commitment to free and open debate and the opportunity for all sides to be heard without threat of censorship or reprisal.

It has been heartening that student and faculty groups that do not necessarily support the position of Northern Kentucky Right to Life have come out strongly in support of the organization's right to be heard through their display. This reflects a commitment to the importance of free speech and inquiry as a hallmark of our University.

Professor Jacobsen has been removed from her remaining classes and placed on leave from the University. She will retire from the University at the end of this semester. The Faculty Senate, representing more than 1,000 NKU faculty members, has taken strong action today that affirms the importance of free expression as a defining quality of the University. Our campus has spoken with a strong and unified voice. Further action may occur once a full investigation has been completed.

The action taken by the University should be considered in the context of Professor Jacobsen's entire 27 year career at NKU. Nevertheless, her recent lapse of judgment was severe and, for a period of time, has caused some in our community and beyond to question whether Northern Kentucky University upholds freedom of expression. My answer to this question is an unequivocal yes. NKU lives its commitment to free expression and responds when that commitment has been compromised.

America is, today, debating a variety of polarizing issues around which people feel great passion. It is not surprising that these strong sentiments find their way onto college campuses. However, our role is to add light to these debates, not more heat. If we don't serve this role, who will?

cirby (mail):

The action taken by the University should be considered in the context of Professor Jacobsen's entire 27 year career at NKU.

Well, how about that career?

From my time at college, every professor who did something that finally got them in trouble had been at more or less the same level of craziness for years, they just finally pushed it that little bit too far, or did it in front of someone who wouldn't cover for them.

Let's hear some more context about this, since they brought it up.
4.18.2006 8:17pm
Alaska Jack (mail):
The real kicker comes when you realize that she couldn't distinguish between expression and supression after TWENTY-SEVEN YEARS IN AN INSTITUTION OF HIGHER EDUCATION!!

- AJ
4.18.2006 8:52pm
alkali (mail) (www):
The lesson is: if you treat a university-approved political display in an unapproved fashion, your academic career is over!

Another victory for free speech!

(In seriousness, I probably agree that the professor at issue here used poor judgment. That said, this whole thing strikes me as dodgy. As I understand it, the display consisted of a bunch of crosses that represented grave markers for aborted babies. Suppose the professor had written on each of the crosses, "In Memory Of A Woman Who Died Because She Couldn't Get A Safe And Legal Abortion." That would have completely reversed the point of the people who put up the display. Would that have been suppression of free speech, or its exercise?

Another hypothetical: at the University of Michigan in the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was a "shanty" -- really, a wooden box about 8 foot on a side -- built by students in the center of campus to protest South African apartheid. After some time, the shanty was set afire occasionally, possibly by students who were annoyed with the students who were politicizing campus life. Were the students who burned the shanty engaging in free speech? Suppressing it? Should they have been punished differently than someone who committed some other act of minor vandalism?

A third query: how is punishing the professor for her motives in taking apart the display different than hate crimes legislation?

All in all, I don't think there are a lot of reasons to cheer here.)
4.18.2006 9:28pm
Amazing. Good job NKU!
4.18.2006 9:37pm
William Spieler (mail) (www):
I'm a little disappointed that she's allowed to retire as opposed to getting fired, but I guess the resolution's good enough.
4.18.2006 9:48pm
Just out of curiosity, would Professor Jacobsen's actions have been justified if the display had included graphic displays of aborted fetuses? Some of the anti-abortion crowd used to parade around with such imagery in the past, although I don't know if any of them still do. At what point does a political display become so offensive as to lose protection from those who would destroy it? Never?
4.18.2006 10:03pm
James Ellis (mail):
What a great email. That is exactly what university presidents are supposed to do.
4.18.2006 10:14pm
te (mail):
So if putting up tacky cardboard crosses is speech, why isn't taking them down speech as well?

What about building a plywood wall around the crosses so you can't see them? Wouldn't that be speech.
4.18.2006 10:16pm

You raise a number of interesting points, I'll try to add a comment about one of them.

I think that writing on the crosses, "In memory of ..." would be defacing the display, and probably not good form. A counter display, close to but not interfering with the original, however, seems entirely appropriate.
4.18.2006 10:17pm
Starboard Attitude (mail):

Are you serious? katzxy is right.

The prof's actions were not free speech, they were censorship. Similarly, altering the original message would be censorship.

She was entitled to erect signs or displays expressing her disagreement with the original message, but not to destroy them.

Her actions were censorship and vandalism--nothing more. Free speech, my ass!
4.18.2006 10:37pm
frankcross (mail):
alkali, it doesn't seem that tough to me.

Writing on another's display is anti-free speech, but putting up her own crosses with that message would not be, because it is adding speech without suppressing another's

Burning down the shanty was anti-free speech, regardless of the motivation.

Her punishment would not be like a hate crime law if it were the same as one who destroyed speech for nihilist reasons. Though I personally would not be averse to some hate crime type analogy, making punishment worse for speech suppressive motive.
4.18.2006 10:44pm
Bruce Hayden (mail) (www):
And, yes, burning down those silly shanty towns is identical in my mind to ripping up those crosses. Both are censureship, pure and simple, are vandalism, and, thus, criminal, and if done to express an opinion, are civil disobedience, where the perps should be willing to do the time. Committing a criminal act is still committing a criminal act, even if it is civil disobience in the form of a 1st Amdt. protest. The idea that someone should be immune from criminal or civil liability when expressing an opinion in this manner is just plain silly.
4.18.2006 10:44pm
No One of Import:
Burning down someone else's property is arson.
Tearing down someone else' property is criminal as well.
She is being allowed to retire because she was going to retire in a few weeks anyway. But from what I understand the organization that set up the crosses intends on seeking criminal charges.

It is cases like this why I simply will not go back for my PhD. As a conservative today, it is impossible to make it in academia without selling out or lying your way through the process.

And no, that's not hyperbole. I've sat in on enough meetings and classes for my Masters to realize this professor is just expressing the hate and rage that the "tolerant" leftist running colleges and teaching feel.

Her big mistake was not making it more directly a part of a class. Had she done so, her fellow liberal professors would no doubt have wrapped her in "Free speech" and "Academic Freedom" as some have done in these messages anyway.

No, "Academic Freedom" and "free speech" means far more than mouthing the leftist line.
4.18.2006 10:51pm
I don't think those are interesting points. If you try stop one person's message from reaching another person, BAD. If you try to counteract that message with one of your own, GOOD.

Ceteris parebis, of course.
4.18.2006 10:53pm
I remember student government campaigns at the U. of Michigan. Liberal students worked in highly-efficient teams to remove any posters for conservative candidates. They cleared out 20 or so from a single lecture hall in under two minutes.
4.18.2006 10:58pm
27 years of service followed by a stupid attack... nothing wrong with letting her retire. I think the shame of retiring this way is punishment enough.
4.18.2006 11:00pm
And I also remember those dumb shanties. Glad they're gone.
4.18.2006 11:02pm
Michael Livingston (mail):
I certainly believe in free speech, but I would want to know a lot more facts before knowing if the person should be fired, forced to retire, etc. Was this a premeditated or an impulsive act? Was she in some way provoked (i.e., were one or more of her equivalent displays vandalized)? These are not necessarily relevant to guilt, but perhaps to punishment. I wonder if only lawyers are interested in this sort of thing.
4.18.2006 11:13pm
frankcross (mail):

As a conservative today, it is impossible to make it in academia without selling out or lying your way through the process.

Take that, Eugene, David, Todd et al.
4.19.2006 12:15am
The Plumber (www):
No telling how many heads of mush this dingbat twisted.

She should have been fired.
4.19.2006 1:03am
Tiny E in DearbornMI (mail) (www):

Are you still in AA? Ann Arbor is the Berkley of the Midwest, full of the most absurd ideolgy. If Eugene want's something to eye in 2006, watch Michigan for it's affirmitive action proposal being put forth on the state wide ballot.

On another point, it's refreshing to hear a university professor unequivocaly renounce this thugishness.
4.19.2006 1:10am
mls (mail):

"at the University of Michigan in the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was a "shanty" — really, a wooden box about 8 foot on a side — built by students in the center of campus to protest South African apartheid."

"And I also remember those dumb shanties. Glad they're gone."

I'm even more glad that South African apartheid is gone. And I'm sure that had nothing to do with world-wide protests . . . . Dumb shanties.
4.19.2006 1:39am
Kind of a shame that a 27-year career is down the toilet, although tearing down a approved display is extremely stupid of a career professor.

Guess we'll see how 'tolerant' conservatives are of free speech when when a pro-choice display comes up on campus somewhere. I would really like to see conservatives explain away their hypocrisy when the demand that say, a pro-choice display, be torn down because it infringes on 'freedom of religion'.
4.19.2006 1:51am
While I agree that this was not acceptable behavior by a professor, firing the professor (or "asking" her to resign) seems like an extremely harsh penalty. An official reprimand and profuse public apology seems like a more appropriate penalty for a first of offense of this nature.
4.19.2006 2:04am
Eugene Volokh (www):
Elais: I would surely oppose conservatives' demanding that pro-choice displays on campuses be torn down on the grounds that such displays infringe on their "freedom of religion." Tell me, can you point me to conservatives doing this? I don't recall any such incidents, but I'm sure you have some in mind.
4.19.2006 2:19am
gravytop (mail) (www):
What if you protested a display of crosses by putting up a counter display which sort of made it difficult to view the dipslay of crosses? Like maybe in order to get to the prime viewing point you would have to navigate some thorny jungle jim that would have inflicted smarting wounds? Or an STD (Severe tire damage.) Free speech?
4.19.2006 2:28am
Cornellian (mail):
It's a pity we couldn't merge 3 VC threads at once by having this be about the prof punching out Scott Savage for recommending Mearsheimer and Walt's "Israel Lobby" paper be added to a first year reading curriculum.
4.19.2006 2:53am
jgshapiro (mail):
The shanty situation in AA was interesting, but I don't know how relevant it is to the cross situation at NKU.

It started with a shanty opposing apartheid. Then another shanty was built by Palestinian supporters to signal opposition to Israeli policies in the territories. Then a third shanty went up in response to the second shanty, which was a burning bus meant to signal opposition to Palestinian terrorism. (This one seemed to follow the argument that you should oppose speech with more speech, but it was routinely defaced and often criticized.) Then a fourth shanty went up, more or less as a joke, favoring the total abolition of Michigan student government as a waste of student funds.

Finally, the University cleared all of them out in the middle of the night and they never returned. The argument against them (apart from any substantive disputes with the messages behind them) was that they were an eyesore and took up prime space in the diag where students wanted to hang out. There were only four of them, but if the first four were allowed to stay, you can assume that eventually there would be many more to follow.

Whether they were free speech is debatable: they had a message behind them, but an act with a message behind it is not protected expression just because of the message. You would not have gotten away with building a shanty in the diag without a message behind it, just for the hell of it, so how can the message save it?
4.19.2006 5:34am
No facts to know for sure, but I'll bet she's been place "on leave" on full pay. Little inconvenience there.

And, reports have been that she was planning to retire at the end of the semester, 3 or 4 weeks away, anyway. So, "retiring" her is a meaningless gesture by the University.

In the end, Prof. Jacobson has suffered little, if any, retribution for her totally unAmerican and boorish behavior.

4.19.2006 8:55am
Tflan (mail):
This is the type of response western media should have made to the cartoon controversy.
4.19.2006 9:47am
the facts are quite simple:

by her own statements, she encouraged her students to exercise "free speech" by tearing down a display she felt was offensive. nothing more complex than that.

people ask if it would have been the same if it had been pictures of aborted fetuses and, i suppose, more offensive material. it perhaps then would not have been an approved display. the point was, this was an approved display. i suspect one has to inform the school what the display will entail for it to be approved. which raises another point, who made her dean of (display issues) to be revoking approval of a display at her whim?

finally, whoever said that they'd like to see how conservatives react to a pro-choice display: um, have you ever been to a campus in america in the last thirty years???????? as if.
4.19.2006 9:52am
MDJD2B (mail):
So if putting up tacky cardboard crosses is speech, why isn't taking them down speech as well?

Doh, if publishing books is free speech, why isn't removing them from libraries and bookstores and burning them?
4.19.2006 10:27am
Bruce Hayden (mail) (www):
I think that shantys very definately were expression. Back then, when I returned to my undergraduate college for homecoming one year, there was a shanty village right along a main street through school. I asked a friend who lived near there about it, and he indicated that the had been up for a couple of weeks. I found it a bit humorous, with the average income of the parents of those students probably well into the six figures, that they would be playing at this sort of protest. Growing up, their bedrooms were most likely bigger than the shantys they had build. And, apparently, some of the more zelous had actually spent a night or two in them (in their down sleeping bags, of course).
4.19.2006 10:37am
"Ann Arbor is the Berkley of the Midwest, full of the most absurd ideolgy."

And here I thought it was Madison, Wisconsin.
4.19.2006 10:38am
Meryl Yourish (www):
One of the more popular things to do on college campuses: When your organization disagrees with something in the current issue of the college newspaper, send your people around to the newspaper stands, collect, them, and destroy them. This happened more than once during my college career, and happens today, particularly on any campus newspaper that discusses the Danish Mohammed cartoons.

How is what Prof. Jacobsen did any different from destroying the newspapers?

As a former college newspaper editor, not a lawyer, let me point out that if building the crosses is free speech, destroying them is still simply destroying them.

Free speech is putting up your own exhibit. Not taking down someone else's.
4.19.2006 11:07am
Seamus (mail):

So if putting up tacky cardboard crosses is speech, why isn't taking them down speech as well?

Good point. Similarly, if addressing a crowd is speech, why isn't bringing noisemakers to drown the speaker out speech as well?
4.19.2006 11:26am
alkali (mail) (www):
Meryl Yourish writes: How is what Prof. Jacobsen did any different from destroying [student] newspapers?

Seamus writes: [I]f addressing a crowd is speech, why isn't bringing noisemakers to drown the speaker out speech as well?

These are good questions. However, I can think of at least three distinctions:

One, in the case of newspapers and public speakers, there are parallel means available for responding to that speech. If someone writes a newspaper article you don't like, you can publish and distribute your own response. If someone makes a speech you don't like, you can give your own speech in response. I'm a bit vague on how one responds in kind to a display, particularly if some sort of "university approval" is required before one can put up a counter display. (Along those lines, Jutblogger writes: who made [the professor] dean of (display issues) to be revoking approval of a display at her whim? One might as well ask, who gave the person who actually holds that position that power?)

Two, there are established social protocols for how one responds to published speech and public speakers. Under those protocols, destroying newspapers and "drowning out" are recognized as inappropriate and everyone is on notice of that. I think it is at least arguable that there are no comparable well-established social protocols for how one may properly express disagrement with a message conveyed via a public installation. It doesn't seem impossible to me that the protocol could provide that a public conversation of sorts could be conducted by modification and counter-modification of the installation.

Three, stealing newspapers, destroying library copies of books, and drowning out a public speech with noise are all illegal. Does disassembling a public installation of no intrinsic value even constitute misdemeanor vandalism? Has the professor been charged with anything by any law enforcement authority?
4.19.2006 12:55pm
It was reported that the professor emailed the students involved the following message:

"In the meantime, the campus police continue their investigation," she said. "If you have not yet been interrogated, you do not have to talk to them without an attorney. You can make it hard to find you. Again, I am so sorry."

Given that all of these people face criminal charges for concerted, illegal action, could her email, specifically the advice "you can make it hard to find you" be read as an attempt to obstruct justice?
4.19.2006 3:07pm