Reaction to “Straight Pride Week” Fliers Raises Constitutional Questions
By Graig Graziosi
Campus officials removed posters calling for May 1-8 to be celebrated as “Straight Pride Week” on Tuesday, following student and faculty complaints.
Utilizing the familiar rainbow design that many LGBTQIA groups use, the poster called for a “Straight Pride Week,” during which students would go about their days without drawing attention to their sexual orientation.
The poster’s text alleged it was the work of “students that are sick of hearing about … LGBT pride,” though no evidence exists to suggest there was more than a single person behind the flier.
Shortly after the posters were discovered, Student Government Association president-elect Ashley Orr was made aware of the situation. She contacted Jack Fahey, vice president of student affairs, who then acted to have the posters removed by campus officials.
“Everyone has a right to express their opinion on campus, but [the SGA and the administration] felt — especially considering the English Festival is about to start — that the poster’s language was obscene and should be taken down,” Orr said.
Despite the fliers’ language eliciting a number of complaints, YSU’s decision to remove the bulletins may have been a violation of the First Amendment.
According to Ari Cohn, an attorney and the program officer for legal and public advocacy at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, public college campuses are not considered zones of limited speech. Unless the speech qualifies as unprotected under U.S. legal precedents, officials cannot censor it.
“The Supreme Court has been clear for decades that the First Amendment extends to public university students to the same extent it does to them in the outside, regular world. College students have broad First Amendment rights … which means that schools can only prohibit certain kinds of speech that are deemed unprotected under the First Amendment,” Cohn said.
The loosely determined category of speech known as “hate speech” is protected under the constitution.
“Hate speech — ill defined as it is — has never been held by the Supreme Court to be unprotected by the First Amendment … unless it also falls under another category of unprotected speech,” Cohn said.
Unprotected speech is a category of communication that likely would result in an immediate disturbance of the peace or potential for bodily harm to an individual.
“Some categories of unprotected speech are incitement to immediate violence or unlawful action, which I don’t think any reasonable person could argue is present in the fliers. … There’s also defamation, libel and slander, which the flier wouldn’t fall under,” Cohn said. “There is the doctrine of fighting words, which applies to face-to-face verbal epithets, such as racial slurs, that would incite one to violence on the spot. These were fliers, so they wouldn’t count there. Then there’s also true threats and intimidation, which requires some kind of serious expression to do some kind of grave bodily harm to somebody. Obviously these posters, as distasteful as some may find them, don’t fall under any category of unprotected speech.”
While students’ freedom of speech is guaranteed on college campuses, some universities do have policies to regulate the use of their bulletin boards.
The Jambar is not aware of the placement of every example of the fliers and the potential effect the placement would have on the legality of their removal.
As far as The Jambar has been able to ascertain, YSU does not have policies explicitly banning material from bulletin boards some might find offensive, but does have a policy in Article 3, Section 8 of the Code of Student Rights, Responsibilities and Conduct that states, “Physical abuse, verbal abuse, threats, intimidation, harassment, stalking, bullying and/or coercion which endangers or tends to endanger the safety, health or life of any person (including self)” are violations of student conduct. Based on one’s interpretation, the fliers could fall under one of those categories.
Barring an explicit exemption, however, Cohn doesn’t believe the fliers should have been removed.
“It’s hard to say definitively because I’m not in the administrator’s head … but if the fliers were removed simply because someone found them offensive, then yes, that certainly runs afoul of both the letter and the spirit of the law,” he said.
Despite this potential legal issue for the university, the students on campus who were targeted by the fliers’ message still express the feeling of being accosted.
YSUnity, Youngstown State University’s LGBT+ student organization, advised their members to respond in a measured and responsible way to the fliers. Tim Bortner, president of YSUnity, claimed the fliers were an example of the sort of bullying his organization stands against.
“As an organization, we support everyone on this campus, whether they’re LGBTQIA or straight allies. This group is a supportive group for everyone and this campus is supposed to be a safe place for everyone to be themselves. YSUnity does not support any kind of hate like this against our community, against the straight community or against any other community operating on this campus,” Bortner said.
David Nickell, a graduate student, said he believes opinions like those found in the flier corrode the progress made by those seeking a more accepting campus.
“It’s a shame how one person — or a small group of people — must hide behind anonymity to insult or degrade a minority group that already faces this brand of intolerance every day. By not taking ownership, the culprit demonstrates not only ignorance, but also cowardice, and degrades YSU’s longstanding pride for and commitment to diversity,” Nickell said.
Several students and faculty, many with expressions of disgust accompanying the image, passed an image of the flier around social media.
While the First Amendment allows for uncomfortable and offensive speech in public places, Cohn said he believes these freedoms to be conducive to a stronger learning environment.
“A university campus is quintessentially the place for the rough and tumble of conflicting ideas and viewpoints. If you go to college and you aren’t offended by something, chances are you didn’t learn as much as you should have,” Cohn said. “Frankly, parents and introspective students should be looking for that … it’s so integral to the soul and purpose of a university that trying to squelch it in the name of recruiting would seem to me to be going about things fairly backwards.”
The Jambar will continue to investigate the placing of the fliers and policies relevent to the removal.