1st Amendment Doesn’t Permit Censorship Based on Disgust

November 4, 2011

SAN DIEGO – No matter how distasteful it is, the content of a student newspaper is protected by the First Amendment, the San Diego ACLU told California State University San Marcos in a letter sent Friday, November 4.

The newspaper, The Koala, recently published a photograph of two women without shirts on, with the face of a female CSUSM student who ran for Homecoming King superimposed on one of the women’s faces, with accompanying text. The student expressed concerns to the university’s Dean of Students, who reportedly told her that the school would investigate students associated with The Koala for violating the student code of conduct, especially provisions banning “disorderly, lewd, indecent, or obscene behavior…directed toward a member of the University community.” The Associate Dean of Students sent letters to several students who worked for The Koala, alleging that they were “involved in a student conduct code violation” and instructing them to participate in a “disciplinary conference.”

While most people would consider the photograph and caption unorthodox and offensive, the First Amendment protects “outrageous and outlandish” speech often contained in parodies. However crudely realized, this piece is plainly attempting to lampoon the idea of a woman running for Homecoming King. As vulgar as the piece is, the student’s candidacy for Homecoming King raises numerous questions of interest to the public, including gender roles and sexuality, and is therefore fair game for public comment, praise, criticism or parody.

“Students, staff and the entire CSUSM community are free to speak out against The Koala and any of its individual articles,” said David Blair-Loy, legal director for the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties. “But the university should not be investigating, disciplining or retaliating against anyone because of its content.” The U.S. Supreme Court has been emphatic on the fundamental importance of free speech, Blair-Loy wrote in the letter, and has made it abundantly clear that the government may not prohibit expression of an idea because society finds it offensive.

“The best antidote to offensive speech is more speech, not less,” said Blair-Loy. “Censorship is a blunt instrument that endangers all speech and often has the unintended effect of promoting the censored message.” The San Diego ACLU letter called on the university to refrain from investigating or prosecuting students due to the content of The Koala parody.

This is not the first time The Koala has raised the ire of students and others in San Diego. In February 2010, a student-run Koala TV station supported an offensive off-campus party at UCSD that mocked Black History Month and promoted offensive racist stereotypes.

Read the ACLU Letter

CSUSM Koala 11-4-11.pdf