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.