'The First Amendment Protects Speech Even When It Is Rude and Offensive'


A few weeks ago, William Kirwan, president of Central Spirit, a student organization at Clemson University, had an email exchange with an administrator, Laura McMaster, in which he rejected her recommendation that the group participate in the school's annual Fall Organizations Fair, calling it "a colossal waste of time." When McMaster, Central Spirit's official adviser, tried to cajole/pressure Kirwan into reconsidering, he replied:

You want us to participate in a recruiting event that acquired us zero members last year and provides no achievable benefit to the organization, while costing us money (in the form of flyers, brochures, and promotional items) just because It will "look good" and because we'd be the only Big 7 organization to choose not to participate? Does Marty [Kern, McMaster's boss] know you were smoking crack in the office this afternoon? because that's the only semi-logical explanation I can glean. Let me tell you something, I'm not going to let you bully the organization into doing the things you want us to do or perceive as important when they take away our resources from being able to concentrate on our mission.

Kirwan sounds like a dick, doesn't he? Yet Kern, who was copied on the message, managed to outdo him through a kind of reverse judo that turned his weaknesses into an advantage. She informed Kirwan that "your language and tone is unacceptable" and asked him to meet her "asap." After Kirwan declined, Kern said that too was "unacceptable" and that she would hold the "meeting" without him. He egged her on:

Do what you want! There's no university policy in place that says I have to be respectful to anybody or grant them my time….

The point you want to make with me is that I should be respectful with you, when clearly you have a problem with an employee doing illegal drugs in the office* to which you turn a blind eye.

Six days later, Kirwan was charged with four violations of university regulations: disorderly conduct, harassment, computer misuse, and failure to comply with an official request. Kirwan contacted the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which on Monday sent a letter to Clemson's president, James F. Barker, reminding him that public universities are required to respect freedom of speech. The university dropped the charges against Kirwan the next day, agreeing that "the First Amendment protects speech even when it is rude and offensive."

Defending campus hotheads against retaliation from touchy university administrators is a FIRE specialty.

[*Commenter Ken Shultz suggests this could be read as libelous, but in context it is clearly a reference to Kirwan's earlier jibe that McMaster must have been "smoking crack" to think she could change his mind.]