Free Speech

Barry Outside 'Free Speech Zone'; Philosopher Offended


Just when you the water-buffalo-as-racial-epithet and "campus free speech zones" days were over, comes this absurd story from FIRE . Apparently, Marquette University finds Dave Barry's libertarianism "offensive":

That's right: Even all-American humorist Dave Barry is subject to censorship on our nation's college campuses, as Ph.D. student Stuart Ditsler found out last fall.
Ditsler didn't think he was doing anything objectionable by posting a Dave Barry quote on his office door last October—but James South, the head of Marquette's philosophy department, thought differently.
The Barry quote posted by Ditsler read, "As Americans we must always remember that we all have a common enemy, an enemy that is dangerous, powerful and relentless. I refer, of course, to the federal government."

Within days, South deemed the quote "patently offensive" and removed it from Ditsler's office door, stating that "while I am a strong supporter of academic freedom, I'm afraid that hallways and office doors are not 'free-speech zones.'" (Ironically, campus censors love to preface their censorship with a declaration of their commitment to free expression.)

Full story here.

NEXT: O.J. Agonistes, Or, If He Did Read the Papers, Here's How He'd Be Apalled By Them

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  1. I find Dave Barry’s humor to be offensivly unfunny.

  2. Although IRL he’s a real funny guy.
    And actually played in a band with that guy who was pinned under a rock and knifed his own arm off…one of the sorriest moments of my life was the day I missed that.

  3. This is kinda old news, isn’t it? I thought I read about this a few months ago.

  4. Chicklehead,

    Yeah, I thought this has been blogged here a number of times.

  5. What does this have to do with Free Speech? Doesn’t Marquette University have a right to dictate what kind of speech is allowed on its property?

    Mr. Distler needs to buy some private land, then he can post his Dave Barry quote.

  6. “while I am a strong supporter of academic freedom, I’m afraid that hallways and office doors are not ‘free-speech zones.'” (Ironically, campus censors love to preface their censorship with a declaration of their commitment to free expression.)

    And it means a shot and bier chaser, per the DRINKING GAME rulez.

    *strikes jaunty pose

  7. Yeah, this is practically ancient history.

  8. I want to deport anyone who is offended by the idea that the federal government is our common enemy. That should be the litmus test of citizenship–“Do you trust, respect, and love the government? Yes? I’m sorry, you’re not an American. Please board this ship.”

    This is an academic freedom case, not a free speech one, since (I’m pretty sure) Marquette is a private university. That doesn’t change the asininity of the situation, of course. Preaching love for terror must be protected; suggestions that the government is bad must be stopped.

  9. This is wrong, and I would not want to see something like that happen in my department. Still, it smells weird, and I have to wonder if there’s a bit more to this story. Not that it would justify it, but it would certainly explain it.

    First, I wouldn’t assume that the department chair did this on his own initiative. He could have, but it’s also possible that somebody else complained, and used some loaded words like “hostile work environment” or whatever. Those words sound awfully close to legalese (at least to the ears of a non-lawyer) and carry all sorts of implications, and so I can see a department chair deciding to pacify the squeaky wheel.

    Doesn’t make it right, but it would at least make a bit more sense.

    Or maybe the guy did more than just post it. Maybe he made a point of pointing it out to people and trying to start arguments.

    Still wouldn’t make it right to tear it down, but at least it would be less crazy.

    I’m not writing any of this to justify anything, but I find that crazy situations often have a bit of backstory to them, and the bad decisions that come out are often somebody’s very crude (and bad) attempt to resolve a mess. Doesn’t mean that they should have resolved it the way they did, doesn’t mean I’m going to defend it. But it does mean that there’s probably some juicy gossip behind all this.

    In other words, I want the juicy gossip behind the story.

  10. I find South’s statement patently offensive.

  11. Warren,

    Let’s go kick his ass.

  12. Out of context and in ignorance of Dave Barry being a humorist, I could imagine how the quote could be construed as an incitement to violence. Aside from that, it is a property rights issue with a twist of academic hypocrisy thrown in for flavor, not a free speech issue.

  13. Rimfax-

    Agreed, the University should have the right to do this. But I would say that they made a bad judgement call on the exercise of their property rights, since the goal of a University should be to have an environment where ideas can be debated openly.

    My guess is there’s some backstory here. Doesn’t mean that the right judgement call was made, but I’ll bet the story is much juicier than just “Department chair sees sign that he doesn’t like, decides to pick fight, ignite controversy.”

  14. Doktor T:

    thank you for bringing up that distinction. It is very important, and it seems to get lost, oftentimes.

    That would be a good disclaimer (along with the “Agree with MikeP” one.).

    You know, for a physicist, you’re not as evil as others. Or are you? [evil laughter]

    *starts building statue to Doktor T

  15. Looking at the thread that MP linked to, it appears that the department chair got complaints.

    I’ll bet that either the student went out of his way to antagonize people, and created an incident that the chair handled poorly, or else some crank put a ton of pressure on the chair, and the chair decided to handle the situation in a cowardly manner rather than telling the squeaky wheel to save it for something more important than signs on doors.

  16. Boy, how quickly we abandon the free market in situations like this. Other schools should simply advertise that students can post any Dave Barry quotes they like on the doors and the situation will take care of itself.

  17. “Ancient history.”

    So it is. It was reported in the New York Post yesterday, so I will defer blame to Rupert Murdoch (or to myself for trusting the Post to be up to date).

  18. From what FIRE’s other articles on this say, it sounds like posting materials like that (with, of course, different content) was the status quo in the Philosophy department. This looks like it has much more to do with what was being said than anything else.

    Academic freedom for some! Free cookies for others!

  19. thoreau,

    I think you’re probably right that there’s some sort of back-story. My guess is it goes something like this; The University wants the government to deliver a big steaming pile of cash. The student is against the wholly corrupt cash grab. The department thinks the punk might actually threaten their chances of getting their mitts on the filthy lucre. Naturally I’m talking out my ass here, but if I’m right that just makes South an even bigger asshat.

  20. This looks like it has much more to do with what was being said than anything else.

    I can’t be sure on this, but I think you’re leaving out some variables:

    1) Who said it.
    2) What else he said.
    3) Whom he said it to, and how.
    4) What somebody else said to the chair.
    5) Status of the complainer(s) in department politics.

    The fact that the student went to FIRE also makes me suspicious. Some of these “academia censored me because they’re lefty” complaints turn out to be from people who decided to act like jerks and then act shocked and surprised when they get a nasty response. Doesn’t mean that the nasty response is the wise one, but there’s usually a bit of backstory.

    Then again, it could be that a student got screwed over for doing nothing wrong.

  21. Warren, I doubt this has anything to do with grants. Students usually have very minimal involvement in grant applications. And grant reviewers could care less what sort of sign a grad student posts on his door. Frequently the grad student offices are in a separate corridor anyway, where an important visitor wouldn’t even pass.

  22. He definately rubbed someone the wrong way…

    1) lover’s quarrel

    2) The 20 bag he sold was all seed and stems

    3) Lost someone’s Tupac CD

    The possibilities are endless. Only two people really know what happened that day.

  23. I know I’m posting a lot in here, but I smell juicy academic gossip, not ideology. Ideology is dull, but gossip is nice and juicy!

  24. Um, I agree with Dan T.
    I think.

    I agree with everyone else commenting here, too.

    Except Jonathan Hohensee. I like Dave Barry.

    And Chuck Berry.

    And I liked the movie about Chuck Barris.

  25. Dan T,

    Several commenters have stated that the University has the right to do what it did, and I would agree with that. I don’t think the student has or should have any legal recourse.

    However, we also have the right to say that the dept chair is an asshat who only supports free speech when he agrees with it.

  26. thoreau,

    I don’t buy it. The guy may be a jerk, but the action of forcing him to remove something that is patently not offensive is not at issue. Whatever the mysterious underlying dislike for the guy, attacking him by insulting the very idea of academic freedom is sad.

    The whole Sami al Arian thing at U.S.F. had nothing to do with him promoting terrorism. He actually got tossed because he didn’t chip in for the coffee fund.

  27. The chemistry dept. chair had numerous anti-Bush pictures and editorial ‘toons posted on his door when I was still taking classes a few years ago. No one said anything.

    I guess “anti government” is in the eye of the beholder.

  28. I think thoreau shares the general opinion that the dept chair is an ass. He’s just pointing out that his ass-ness is far more complex than it seems at first sight.

  29. I guess my point is that this probably isn’t as ideological as some might think, and more about nasty office politics rather than national politics.

  30. Turns out I’m in a good position to point out a few things overlooked in this brouhaha–I had an office just down the hall, and was in that selfsame philosophy department. Sure it’s gossip, and sure it’s old news, but Dr. South and Stuart are both good guys, and I don’t like what may happen to their reputations.

    Relevant things overlooked:
    1) The office was a shared office. There were three other individuals who used that office, and who were positioned such that any of their complaints would have justified removing the sign.

    2) There were complaints. I don’t know the identity of the complainants (though I have my suspicions), and I do doubt that any of the three who shared that office made a complaint. But we run into a problem here of what counts as a complaint–whether snide comments in the hallway were counted as complaints, or whether someone put something in writing or sat down with Dr. South. I know none of the officemates did the latter; it wouldn’t surprise me if they did the former and this was misinterpreted.

    3) Dr. South met with the executive committee about the issue. This clearly doesn’t justify the action (unknown facts about 1 and 2 are needed to justify it), but responsibility is shared. South did not make this decision on his own, and does not deserve all of the blame.

    4) The quotation was unattributed, and posted the week before the 5th anniversary of 9/11. Given the officemates mentioned in (1), and the fact that they too had to meet students in that office, these facts make the case more sensitive.

    I’m not saying that the action was justified. I don’t know whether it was. And saying that the university had the right to take it down is, in this case, a legal claim that does not let them off the moral hook. Do I think Dr. South mangled the issue with the way he worded the email? Yes. Do I think the content of the quotation was the only thing at issue, and thus that this is, in fact, strictly a free speech issue? No. If it were only a free speech issue, the action would clearly be unjustified and the shitstorm well deserved. But, knowing them personally, I can say that South and Ditsler are both well-meaning individuals, both enormously generous, and neither is likely wholly innocent in this escapade. Had Ditsler attributed the quotation, I suspect none of this would have happened. Had South not heard complaints, and not been holding together sometimes tenuous department politics with his own bare hands, I suspect none of this would have happened. Was a bad thing done? We don’t know, though it was probably exacerbated by South’s choice of language. And Pro Libertate’s ‘let’s go kick his ass,’ even in jest, is patently uncalled for.

  31. One last thing: Ditsler did not, so far as I know, go to FIRE, and does not deserve to be thought a troublemaker for this. As I know it, he related the story to a friend (forwarding the email that got out), who made a blogpost, which was noticed by another blogger, etc., etc., etc., until it was picked up by some smaller media outlets and noticed by FIRE. The story is unfortunate, minor missteps the whole way round as far as I can tell.

  32. *whisper to “KM”*

    And Pro Libertate’s ‘let’s go kick his ass,’ even in jest, is patently uncalled for.

    If that statement is a point about how someone would miss humor in a statement, because he/she doesn’t know the background or context is well taken.

    ‘cept your complaint won’t get it removed.

  33. KM,

    Oh, for Zeus’ sake, it was a joke. Since neither Warren nor I is prone to violence, I’m not exactly sure how it’s so “patently uncalled for”. As far as I’m concerned, Marquette’s a private institution–they can ignore academic freedom all they want.

  34. Thanks for clarifying, KM. That makes a lot of sense.

    For a rather different (and hilarious!) example of how incidents in a grad student office can spiral out of control, read this:

    (This person is a friend of a friend of a friend.)

  35. ProGLib:

    prob’ly an overly-sensitive response on KM’s part. Also – since KM doesn’t know the banter that Warren, you, moi, and others have, it got misinterpreted. Much in the same way Dave Berry’s quote did.

    If that overly-sensitive, knee-jerk reaction is in the culture of the dept, it should come as no surprise that we see this result.

    Plus, it’s a fucking big east school. nuff said.

  36. I guess I will admit that I have no idea what is so offensive about the Barry quote that would warrant having it removed. It doesn’t even strike me as being meant to be taken seriously.

  37. KM,

    Wanna go kick ProGLib’s ass?
    I’ll hold him down, but first we need to distract VM, cuz he’s a moose and moose are notoriously loyal to wannabe ass-kicking lawyers, but they’re also easily prone to distraction. What we’ll need is something cute and fuzzy but quick. See, VM will want to stomp it into oblivion, and we need to make it difficult for him to catch. I’ve got a vole here. That should do the trick.
    You in?

  38. highnumber,

    That would violate Urkobold Bylaw 711-3, Amendment C: Thou shalt not speechify against the family.


    Isn’t a friend of the friends a euphemism for the mob? Just asking.

  39. “So it is. It was reported in the New York Post yesterday, so I will defer blame to Rupert Murdoch (or to myself for trusting the Post to be up to date).”

    trusting the post is generally a mistake.

    mr. moynihan, i am dying to ask – are you often mistaken for that *other* michael moynihan? (i.e. the dude from blood axis)

  40. ProGLib,
    You violated bylaw 813-32C:
    “You’re not the boss of me! You never let me have any fun! All the cool kids are doing it. Aw, please! I hate you! I hate you! I hate you!”

  41. *stomp stomp stomp

  42. (This person is a friend of a friend of a friend.)

    It looks like SEK is getting hosed. Maybe it’s another case of Academe (and internet) Gone Wild.

  43. On second thought, ProGLib, you actually fulfilled 813-32C, so never mind.

  44. highnumber,

    I’m unclear about whose ass we are to be a’kickin’.

  45. I don’t know about the free-speech or academic freedom issues, but what I wonder is just where does a person have to be intellectually to consider “patently offensive” the claim that the federal government is the enemy? He wasn’t just saying that HE thought it was offensive, he was saying that it is obviously so to anyone who gave it any thought. Who thinks that way??

    Who exactly does such a comment offend?

  46. Me, too. I say we all go kick KM’s ass. He’s a philosopher, so he probably won’t put up much of a fight (except, maybe, conceptually).

    [N.B. — no, not really. Sheesh!]

  47. D.A. Ridgely,

    Indeed. Along those lines, I think I’m going to write a novel based on a character who is a philosopher with Conan the Barbarian-like ass-kicking powers. So, when he dispatches an enemy, instead of a one-liner, he’ll engage in a 3-4 hour monologue.

    In another first, I will publish this novel here at Hit & Run.

    Chapter One. . . .

    Nah, I’m just kidding again.

  48. I’m offended by clich?s such as “patently” offensive.

  49. Well, I thought about kicking lots of different asses, so if you are a philosopher of a certain stripe, I guess you could consider your ass kicked, beeyatch!

  50. Apropos of which, following exhaustive research (read: I Googled Smith’s homepage)and analysis (read: I’m thinking about it as I type), I’d say Smith sounds like (1) an okay guy and (2) we better not mess with him — he’s the co-editor of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy and James Bond and Philosophy, so he probably not only knows various chants and spells to turn us all into Phenomenological Werewolves, he’s probably got an exploding copy of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, to boot.

  51. If you think about hitting a professor with a tree from the woods, did it actually happen?


    Manifestly offensive?

  52. My dad is a philosophy professor, and may I just say that I get all the jokes about 3-4 hour monologues at a deeper level than everyone else. Maybe so deep it hurts a little…

  53. Here’s a link to FIRE’s collection of articles and letters relevant to the case:

  54. I’d go with “rationally self-evidently offensive,” “axiomatically offensive” or the ever popular “a priori offensive,” personally, if only because any word including “patent” might draw out He-Whose-Music-Must-Not-Be-Heard.

  55. So trademarkedly offensive is out, too.

    How about ontologically offensive? Or, since it appears that the professor in question didn’t want to know about that viewpoint (or, in any event, was acting in proxy for those who didn’t want to know), how about epistemologically offensive?


    Sorry about that. Go watch some Philosopher’s Football to take the edge off.

  56. Okay, I’ve thought about it, and here’s why South was justified in removing the quote – because he’s the head of the department and because an office door (especially a shared one) is a place that serves as a kind of representation of the department.

    So if you saw an unattributed anti-government quote on a door in the philosophy deparment, you’d have no way of knowing if that quote represented the views of the entire department or just an individual. So I think the head of an organization does (usually) have the authority to determine or at least have a large say in what kind of messages that organization puts out.

    So I get the feeling that if the student had merely posted the comment on his desk, nobody would have cared because it obviously would have been his sentiments alone. But posting it in a public location without attribution makes it unclear exactly who is saying what.

  57. P.L.,

    It’s perplexing, isn’t it? We don’t know if the locution, though ostensively a normative assertion, was intended to convey some sort of consequentialist import (e.g., suggesting ass kickings do not lead to the greatest good for the greatest number) or a Kantian perspective (perhaps a violation of the categorical imperative against ass kickings) or perhaps a virtue ethics approach (the ass kicking proponent would personally fail to flourish), nor do we know the meta-ethical implications. He could be an emotivist and thus merely exclaiming “Ass kicking suggestions – Boo!” or a perhaps prescriptivist (“…and you should go ‘Boo!’ too”).

  58. Good job, Dan. Wanna cookie?

  59. Bagger wins the thread.

  60. I would like a cookie. I asked for mine first.

  61. D.A. Ridgely,

    Are you positing that the Arsch Treten is both a noumenon and a phenomenon? Which begs the fundamental question of whether Plato envisioned the Form of the ass kicking.


    And so shall you have your cookie. Go to the penthouse of River City and ask the resident of said penthouse for a cookie. Tell ’em Pro Libertate sent you.

  62. P.L.

    It’s all right there in the Meano

    MEANO: Ah, Socrates, I see you are chastizing this young lad!

    SOCRATES: Chastizing? Why nothing could be further from the truth, Meano. I am facilitating his remembrance of the the forms (Socrates swings and lands his unshod foot squarely into the boy’s backside) to guide him from ignorance to enlightenment!

    SOCRATES: Now, boy, have you ever had this happen to you before?

    BOY: No, sir.

    SOCRATES: How, then, would you describe it now? (Delivers another swift boot to the boy)

    BOY: Ouch! You’re kicking my ass, sir!

    SOCRATES: Am I doing a good job of it?

    BOY: Ouch! Ouch! Yes, sir, a .. Ouch! .. very good job!

    SOCRATES: Indeed, you have ‘remembered’ well, boy! So, Meano, you see? This boy, who has never had his ass kicked before in this lifetime, understands the ideal ass kicking with only the most gentle (kicks boy one last time for good measure) prompting.

    It’s all in the classics, P.L. (Especially if asses were involved.)

  63. Plato really knows how to explain complex ideas, doesn’t he? It’s like the young man who looked for an ass kicking and found out, in the end, that his ass had been kicked all along.

  64. Speaking of ass-kickings, ProGLib, I went to ask for my cookie. She said she didn’t have any cookies. I told her she was a dirty liar. She said she was calling building security, so I kicked her ass. You should have heard that little old lady scream. She went down like a bitch. Turns out she wasn’t lying. As she lay there whimpering, I ransacked the joint. She did have some nice wine and some beautiful jewelry. Hang on, someone’s banging on my door…

  65. highnumber, you fool, I said River City! You just beat up a lady living in Marina City. Steve McQueen would not be pleased.

  66. I’m gonna actually agree with something Dan T. wrote *ducks as bolt after bolt of lightning pelts the ground around him* : “I guess I will admit that I have no idea what is so offensive about the Barry quote that would warrant having it removed. It doesn’t even strike me as being meant to be taken seriously.”

    Anyone with a sense of humor, even not knowing this was from Dave Barry, could recognize that this was meant to be humor: the beginning part of the quote leading you to think they were talking about some outfit like Communist Russia, with the punch line being it’s about our government.

  67. Highnumber has trouble cuz of River City…

    That’s with a t

    That rhymes with t

    And that stands for taint.

    The ghost of Steve McQueen (not the one in the machine, of course) will be on by shortly to chomp your taint.

  68. YOW!

    Thank you, sir.
    May I have another?


    Thank you, sir.
    May I have another?

    What do you mean, NO?!

  69. Dan T.:

    I’m so glad you thought about the reason it would be ok or not AFTER you posted.

    Your rationale is still moronic, however.

  70. If anyone says “patently” one more freaking time, I’m sending the dogs out.

  71. Derrick,

    While wearing patent leather shoes?

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