LGBT

Cleveland State Debates Free Speech Boundaries of Poster Promoting LGBTQ Suicide

Contrite university president offers a tepid defense of the First Amendment.

|

University Officials Face Backlash for Defending Free Speech in Wake of Anti-LGBTQ Poster

Students and alumni are condemning Cleveland State University President Ronald Berkman for pledging to uphold the First Amendment over a poster urging LGBTQ people to commit suicide.

Students found the poster of a silhouette hanging from a noose beneath the headline, "Follow Your Fellow Faggots," in the main campus building on Oct. 12, the same day as the school's new LGBTQ center opened. The phrase "Fascist Solutions" appears at the bottom of the poster, but no one has come forward to claim responsibility for posting it.

Berkman initially released a statement, "CSU remains fully committed to a campus community that respects all individuals, regardless of age, race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation and other historical bases for discrimination. We will continue to protect free speech to ensure all voices may be heard and to promote a civil discourse where educational growth is the desired result."

Berkman's response infuriated people on and off campus who felt the president's words were lackluster and insensitive, exacerbated by a university spokesman who said the poster was taken down, not because of its contents, but because it violated the university's procedures for posting fliers.

After campus protests and a town hall meeting, Berkman apologized for his initial response and released a new statement on Twitter. "I wanted to acknowledge that yesterday I failed to express my personal outrage over a recent incident involving an anti-LGBTQ+ poster that was recently posted on campus," Berkman explained. "While I find the message of this poster reprehensible, the current legal framework regarding free speech makes it difficult to prevent these messages from being disseminated."

Some students vigorously disagree. "People are free to believe whatever they want, but free speech doesn't protect incitements to violence," Peter Sherman, a CSU theater major told Associated Press. "Asking people to commit suicide is an incitement to violence."

However, Mike Brickner, policy director at the Ohio chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said since the flyer doesn't target specific individuals it should be considered protected speech, according to AP.

The CSU poster calls to mind the recent conviction of Michelle Carter, a Massachusetts woman who was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter after urging her longtime boyfriend, in a series of text messages, to commit suicide. "That has opened up a dangerous concept," Brickner said of the Carter case. "We start to walk down the path of criminalizing speech in that way. It's a question courts may continue to grapple with."

Carter's sentence of two and a half years in jail angered some who felt she deserved a harsher sentence and others who felt she should never have been convicted in the first place.

Reason's own Robby Soave called Carter's conviction into question in an op-ed for the New York Times, arguing that speech—even deplorable speech—is not violence. Advocating suicide is morally reprehensible but its legality is murky.

"While the Supreme Court has carved out narrowly tailored exceptions for literal threats of violence and incitement to lawless action, telling someone they should kill themselves is not the same as holding a gun to their head and pulling the trigger," Soave argued.

The anti-LGBTQ poster at CSU is hateful, but the ACLU and CSU officials are correct in asserting the First Amendment protects such speech. Berkman was right to stick up for free speech in the face of hate, even if his original statement was clumsy. It is heartening to see a university support free speech while so many cave to demands of censorship and political correctness.

Defending free speech is a difficult and often thankless task, especially when the speech in question is homophobic, sexist, racist, or just plain mean-spirited. Yet it is still a task worth taking because free speech is vital to a free society. People ought to be able to openly debate ideas, even terrible ones, if only to make a strong case for why some ideas are better than others.

More speech, not less, is the answer to the anti-LGBTQ poster. Challenge it with editorials, speeches, and posters countering its hateful message. Protecting free speech gives the principles of a free society a better chance of triumphing over hateful sentiments.

NEXT: Are Libertarian Friends the Key to Fixing American Democracy?

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. I wanted to acknowledge that yesterday I failed to express my personal outrage over a recent incident involving an anti-LGBTQ+ poster that was recently posted on campus…

    All they need is for you to virtue signal. Is that too much to ask? (Also to take down the poster.)

    1. I think it is a safe bet to respond to any question with “I am personally outraged.”

  2. Advocating suicide is morally reprehensible,

    Why?

    1. As a free marketeer, I find any willing destruction of human capital immoral.

      1. So you don’t think people have a right to be lazy and unproductive?

        1. Look, we’re posting at H&R, aren’t we?

        2. One man’s lazy and unproductive is another man’s brainstorming.

    2. I mean, if we’re talking about a Marxist, Antifa, bike lock wielding, SJW, we all know how their story ends, we’ve read the [history] book.

      It’s just preemptive self defense.

    3. Yeah, that’s a bold statement. Certainly when someone just yells “KILL YOURSELF” at someone they’re mostly being assholes. But there isn’t any inherent moral issue there I believe. Suicide is committing the ultimate act of will, to make the ultimate choice. One says that I do not live because I keep living, I choose to live and I can choose to die.

  3. Before doing the candlelight vigil, they may want to discover the perpetrator and make sure it’s an actual gay-basher and not some false-flag operation, not that this has every happened before or anything.

    1. The phrase “Fascist Solutions” appears at the bottom of the poster

      That in particular makes me suspect a hoax; a bit too over-the-top.

      1. By the way, it never even occurred to me to say something tasteless like “false fag operation,” so I hope you’re proud of me.

        1. Uh, should have read down further.

          I agree though, the “Fascist Solutions” is like leaving the monogrammed glove.

        2. Well, “fag” and “fascist” both derive from the same Latin word.

      2. All that’s missng is some kek-frogs and a MAGA stamp of approval.

        1. The word trigger triggers me. It’s all about guns.

  4. Some students vigorously disagree. “People are free to believe whatever they want, but free speech doesn’t protect incitements to violence,” Peter Sherman, a CSU theater major told Associated Press. “Asking people to commit suicide is an incitement to violence.”
    Poor Peter Sherman spending all that money on school and has yet to learn much.

    1. Did you miss the ‘theater major’ part?
      As we said in the sixties, in an entirely different context, “reality is a crutch”.

  5. If I tell you to commit suicide, and you don’t kill yourself, clearly you aren’t human. That is what we’re saying, right? Because we all do everything we’re told? That’s why it’s violence, right?

  6. I am outraged at my failure to express my deepest outrage yesterday. My lack of outward outrage was clearly outwardly outrageous.

  7. not because of its contents, but because it violated the university’s procedures for posting fliers.

    rules are helpful.

  8. 95% chance this was actually a pro-LGBT activist trying to make some stupid point.

  9. So sick of Reason.com conflating the first amendment with the stupid things people say.

    Freedom of speech — shorthand for the restriction on government from persecuting people based on speech — is a good idea.

    “Free speech” — the notion that some people’s speech should be protected, which includes forcing others to invite shitty speakers to colleges or criticizing administrators for taking offensive posters down — is downright stupid. Not everybody’s “speech” is worth a damn. That doesn’t mean government should step in and lock them up. But it means that universities, at their discretion, should be able to take a goddamn poster off the wall without the confused free-speech crowd getting all up in arms. It also means that a university should have the power to tell a student group that they can’t invite an alt-right speaker on the university’s dime, or conversely, that a university should have the power to require a right-wing patriotism class if they so choose (this was in today’s news).

    1. Who gets to decide which speakers are acceptable for student groups to invite?
      Is a university a place for learning and being exposed to new ideas?

      1. The university decides who is acceptable, or delegates that role to individual departments or groups where appropriate.

        If the university decides that exposing its students to new ideas is worthwhile, it will probably be more likely to allow student groups to invite controversial speakers. Parents and students will (or at least should) select the university that has the best policy for their particular needs. If a parent decides that he wants to shield his precious child from viewpoints he doesn’t like, then he should select a university that does that.

        The point is that the university should be making this decision. Bureaucrats in Washington, and their faux constitutional protections (which clearly do not apply here), shouldn’t be involved in the process. So when people like Jeff Sessions call for “free speech protections”, what they’re really calling for is government intervention — i.e. force.

        1. “The university” is not a conscious entity that can make decisions. When you say “the university decides” you mean that university officials decide.

          So when people like Jeff Sessions call for “free speech protections”, what they’re really calling for is government intervention — i.e. force.

          You’re pushing the “freedom is slavery” mantra a little too hard here. I suppose you were similarly up in arms when the feds dragged a woman to jail for not complying with the SCOTUS gay marriage diktat?

          1. “The university” is not a conscious entity that can make decisions. When you say “the university decides” you mean that university officials decide.”

            That’s exactly what I meant, which should have been pretty obvious by my next sentence which said that the officials could delegate it to departments and other groups. In fact, that’s how universities OPERATE. University officials make decisions, except when they feel that it is in the best interest for departments to make their own decisions (which is very often the case). This isn’t anything groundbreaking here. It’s how things are currently done. Conservatives are huge proponents of the state intervening in this process.

            “I suppose you were similarly up in arms when the feds dragged a woman to jail for not complying with the SCOTUS gay marriage diktat?”

            It’s a safe bet that I’m up in arms when the feds do just about anything. When it involves intervening in the free association of people, especially.

            1. A private college/university can have whatever polices they want for speech. Public colleges/universities are bound by the 1st Amendment. They can have some time, place, and manner restrictions on speech, but those restrictions must be content neutral.

              1. And that’s a real problem. When we start saying that otherwise independent entities (look at Berkeley’s source of revenue for example — very little comes directly from state funding) are subject to government intervention, it destroys their ability to operate. A great reason to call for privatization of all state universities.

                It’s amazing to me that people who visit a libertarian site are actually advocates of government (specifically, politician) intrusion into the processes of a university, regardless of whether it’s under the public rubric or not.

                It’s also a slippery slope, because once you specify that the receipt of tax dollars for operation is grounds for government intrusion in a business, then an incredibly vast number of private businesses will fall under the control and whims of the state.

                1. If only a small amount of Berkeley’s revenue comes from state funding, maybe it should be privatized. However, until that occurs it is a government entity which subjects them to the limits of government power (including the 1st Amendment) as well as the will of the state’s elected representatives (ie politicians).

                  “It’s also a slippery slope, because once you specify that the receipt of tax dollars for operation is grounds for government intrusion in a business, then an incredibly vast number of private businesses will fall under the control and whims of the state.”

                  Seems like the best solution then is for the government to stop funding private businesses. In the meantime, when taxpayer money is being spent the taxpayer’s elected representatives have every right to dictate terms. If the businesses do not like the terms they are free to decline the funding.

                  1. “However, until that occurs it is a government entity which subjects them to the limits of government power”

                    And what violation of the limits of government power occurs when a campus administrator says that a poster should be taken down, or when he says that Richard Spencer can’t give a lecture on campus? Does that mean that Richard Spenceris owed the ability to give a lecture in the local city hall when the office secretary invites him? Her employers can’t disallow it? Does it mean that I can tack up a poster at the Post Office and they’re not allowed to take it down?

                    The fundamental problem with your argument is that these things are not a violation of the 1st amendment, but you seem to think they are.

                    As far as businesses declining to do business with the government, this is impossible. As other libertarians have written far more extensively than I have the space to do here, you can’t operate your own personal free market. Sheldon Richman eloquently said (and I’m paraphrasing) — you can’t just strip away a few government policies and expect that there is a free market underneath. The federal, state, and city governments are so intertwined with business and the economy that it is impossible to carve out your own.

                    1. “And what violation of the limits of government power occurs when a campus administrator says that a poster should be taken down, or when he says that Richard Spencer can’t give a lecture on campus?”

                      If those decisions were not made in a content-neutral way they are a violation of the 1st Amendment. The campus administration can have content-neutral restrictions such as requiring speakers to be invited by registered student groups, limiting where student groups’ posters can be placed, and require student groups’ posters to state the group sponsoring them.

                      “Does that mean that Richard Spencer is owed the ability to give a lecture in the local city hall when the office secretary invites him?”
                      Not authorizing the office secretary to invite speakers to city hall is a content-neutral restriction.

                      “Does it mean that I can tack up a poster at the Post Office and they’re not allowed to take it down?”
                      Not allowing private individuals to put up posters in the post office is a content-neutral restriction.

                      Regarding the rest, are we discussing government regulations or government funding? There is a significant difference between being agreeing to do X in exchange for taxpayer funding and being required to do X in order to be permitted to operate.

                    2. So you acknowledge that hanging a poster in a place where posters cannot be hung without authorization is grounds for removing the poster at the post office, but that doesn’t apply here? It’s unusual for a university to have a “write whatever you want here” board. That’s what men’s room stalls are for.

                      On your last point, government funding and government regulation are not as distinct as you’d like them to be. As an example, even though Microsoft’s entire business model would collapse if the federal government stopped enforcing arbitrary rules it set up to make companies like Microsoft profitable, that doesn’t suddenly make them a public entity. They receive significant favors paid for by taxpayers, but you’d have a hard time making the case that it’s libertarian to suggest that the federal government should make an agreement to control Microsoft’s day to day operations in exchange for those favors.

                    3. Response to 1st paragraph: Re-read my previous comment. I specifically said that content-neutral restrictions such as limiting where student groups can put up posters, etc is not prohibited by the 1st Amendment.

                      Response to 2nd paragraph: The libertarian solution is to get rid of the arbitrary rules set up to favor companies like Microsoft. Regardless, Microsoft is a private company and State Universities are government entities. I definitely prefer government entities answering to elected officials (politicians) over unaccountable bureaucrats.

    2. “Not everybody’s “speech” is worth a damn”

      physician heal… someone or something i dunno

      1. To adapt a joke about newspapers…if you trusted the government to decide what speech was worthwhile, they’d separate the wheat from the chaff and censor the wheat.

    3. Not everybody’s “speech” is worth a damn.

      It is a State School, you fucktard.

      So, um, yeah, EVERYBODY’S speech is worth a damn.

      1. And a whole lot of borrowed tuition dollars!

      2. I love it when faux libertarians use the “it’s owned by the state” argument to justify politicians getting involved. Your argument is the #1 republican argument in favor of government intervention in hybrid private-public industry (e.g. crony capitalism).

        1. In this case “owned by the state” means school employees are govt agents and cannot be allowed to censor people, because that would be the govt censoring people. Crony capitalism is a different problem. This might just as well be police as school administrators we are talking about.

          Though I may agree with you if you are complaining about student loans and medicare and such as a roundabout way for govt to impose collectivist policies on private schools and hospitals. But I’m not so sure it is a particularly one-sided “republican” tactic.

          1. Actually, I *am* complaining about student loans and medicare to impose collectivist policies. It’s all the same thing. Your two paragraphs are not consistent with each other. In both cases, government attempts to assert an authority it should not have. For decades, libertarians have fought against the notion that the mere funding of public schools means that US government administrators should centrally dictate individual school policy. For example, John Taylor Gatto railed against this (among other things), and we libertarians ate it up. This is no different.

            Also, there is no first amendment silencing occurring here. I can’t walk into the post office and put a poster up on the wall without expecting them to take it down. Just because it’s a government entity does not mean that it’s a free for all. The first amendment is about protection from prosecution, it’s NOT about giving people a platform to voice their opinion or to hang their posters.

    4. It also means that a university should have the power to tell a student group that they can’t invite an alt-right speaker on the university’s dime

      If the uni has a general policy that student groups must pay the costs associated with their own speaker invitations, fine.

      If the uni finances some speakers but not others, discriminating based on politics or ideological bent, then fuck no.

      1. I knew that line would rile up the conservatives. To clarify — if it’s sponsored by the university in any fashion, then the university should be the sole arbiter of whether it happens or not. “Sponsored” may mean money changing hands, or it may be something as simple as providing the space for the speaker. If the student groups have a fundraiser and pay for the speaker in its entirety, but choose to attach the university’s name to it, then it’s still a university function.

        I’m not saying I advocate universities taking a hard line stance on who they disallow. I’m merely saying it should be up to the discretion of the university, not up to politicians and judges.

    5. Not everybody’s “speech” is worth a damn.

      If you don’t think someone’s speech is worth a damn, don’t go to the event where they’re speaking. Problem solved.

  10. RE: Poster Tests Free Speech at Cleveland State: New at Reason

    “Berkman’s response infuriated people on and off campus who felt the president’s words were lackluster and insensitive, exacerbated by a university spokesman who said the poster was taken down, not because of its contents, but because it violated the university’s procedures for posting fliers.”

    Why does the word “bullshit” just leap to mind?

  11. I failed to express my personal outrage over a recent incident involving an anti-LGBTQ+ poster

    PLUS what?

    Goddamn sensitivity creep.

    The First Amendment is dead.

  12. This is terrorism and I CONDEMN IT. Still, it seems easy enough just to go rip it down.

    I’m Jill Stein and I approve this message.

    Don’t ban me bro.

  13. “PLUS what?”

    LGBTQH

    The H is for hetro. It suppose to be inclusive, right?

    Oh, did I need to put a trigger warning with the H?

    1. You can’t say “trigger”.

      It is part of an evil mechanism called a gun, and those things all the time climb out of closets and kill millions in five seconds or less.

    2. heteros are A (allies).

      1. So, LGBTQHPDQRSTUVXYZ plus Allies, Sadists and Satanists?

  14. Free Speech is important. And it must be protected.

    Our soldiers die for it all the time in the Middle East. A bunch wusses at Cleveland State are not going to be a problem

    JFK used the National Guard to prevent goons from interfering in desegregation, Drumpf can do the same. Anybody tearing down a poster, or not allowed to exercise their First Amendment rights to gays should be arrested, or preferably shot.

    Price of freedom. I think that while the speech may be vile, and deans cowardly, one must be prepared to sacrifice their lives protecting the right to say it.

    1. You nailed all the soundbites. Kudos.

  15. Normally I agree with Reason’s positions on freedom of speech, but not in this case.

    If you don’t have the stones to stand by your own speech, and remain anonymous, then what reason does anyone have to protect your speech? You got something to say then say it, be accountable for what you said, and be there to defend it when the other side comes to debate you.

    That is the purpose of free speech – ones liberty to express and defend their ideas in the face of an intolerant or judgmental audience. If there is nobody willing to claim this “speech”, then there is nobody whose speech needs protected.

    Only cowards produce this hateful trash and hide from the backlash and consequences. If you’re too cowardly to account for your own actions, why do authorities need to defend them?

    1. Interpreting when we should provide free speech rights based on the purpose of such a right strikes me as a dangerous path to go down. How about anonymous voting next?

      Anyway the only difference between the trolls and the SJW’s who seek to destroy them, in terms of guts anyway, is the latter group doesn’t have to be anonymous because they have the power. Hell they’re probably networking in those mobs and facebook groups to help their careers and/or sex lives. You can bet they’d hide if they faced the same risks the poster person faces.

  16. I think it is as equally presumptuous to assume that “faggots” means LGBTQXYZ+* folks…. as it is to assume that “pregnant people” must necessarily be women

    I know plenty of faggots who aren’t LGBTetc.. and if you don’t as well, then you need more diversity in your life.

  17. “”People are free to believe whatever they want, but free speech doesn’t protect incitements to violence,” …

    Has anyone actually ever made this point without subsequently inventing a new definition for violence?

  18. I bet it’s a hoax or some such SJW attempt at disingenuousness.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.