The Volokh Conspiracy

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Campus Free Speech

Vandals at the Gates

Profs and pols behaving badly in Nebraska


Days before the 2016 general election, Republican Rep. Jeff Fortenberry got some unwanted media attention. One of Fortenberry's large campaign yard signs was vandalized. The image of the congressman's face was enhanced with a pair of googly eyes and some text was altered. Unsurprisingly, an image of the altered sign was passed around social media, and everyone had a good chuckle. One political science professor at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln gave a post of the image a "like" on Facebook, and then things got weird.

Fortenberry's chief of staff discovered that Professor Ari Kohen had liked the post and realized that democratic norms were collapsing all around us. Having never heard of the Streisand Effect, the chief of staff promptly contacted the professor, his department chair, his dean, and the university chancellor demanding to know what the university's position regarding "vandalism or worse violence" might be. The story went viral. Kohen filed an ethics complaint. Fortenberry won reelection. And everyone moved on.

Well, not quite everyone. Fortenberry called for "serious investigative reporting" to discover "who is causing this type of divisiveness in our city." Perhaps not trusting that journalists would do the necessary digging, the police were also put on the case of the googly eye vandal. Remarkably, some crack CSI work led them to a suspect. Fingerprints from the googly eyes apparently matched fingerprints collected from earlier acts of political vandalism. "Betsy Riot" stickers, the mark of a local "neo-suffragist punk patriot resistance," had been left not only on the Fortenberry sign but also on the office doors of the two Republican senators for the state of Nebraska. Patricia Wonch Hill, a University of Nebraska sociology professor, is now alleged to be a serial political vandal.

Professors, like everyone else, should refrain from political vandalism. Certainly the wanton exhibition of googly eyes does little to elevate the public discourse and does not contribute to the sort of mature democratic deliberation that professors should be trying to help foster. Wonch Hill will face the full weight of the criminal justice system for her offenses (so far the coffers of her legal defense fund seem adequate to pay her misdemeanor fines).

But some are not satisfied. They have called upon the University of Nebraska to take action of its own. The university, admirably, has emphasized that it takes no notice of such "a personal legal matter." University bylaws recognize that the university "should not impose sanctions to duplicate the functions" of civil authorities unless "the University's interest as an academic community is clearly involved." Nonetheless, some local conservatives are grumbling that the university should do something about such taxpayer-funded radicals.

Presumably, the University of Nebraska will withstand the political pressure to crack down on the googly eye vandal. Conservatives should think twice about whether they really want university administrators to have the discretion to discipline wayward professors for minor legal infractions or selectively punish those who express unpopular political views. It is not hard to imagine how such a power could be used against the small minority of professors who hail from the political right. If universities are free to dispense with a professor whose views or actions might "drag them through the mud," then universities are as likely to lose the intellectually adventurous as the politically sophomoric, the traditionalist as the radical. The world would be a better place if fewer members of the campus community thought that they can best strike a blow for justice by putting stickers with political slogans on everything, but conservatives are not helping when they seek to crank up the machinery of censorship.