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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Still no law of Gravity

One year later, the rules regarding satire and offensive speech unclear

Published: March 7, 2008
Section: Front Page

Speech encompasses much more than spoken words. According to Supreme Court rulings, everything from artwork to profanity written on the back of a jacket can be considered speech, and thus constitutionally protected. Most importantly, for free speech purposes, the written word is equal to the spoken.

When Gravity Magazine printed a satirical ad entitled “BlackJerry” in Spring ’07, the article could technically be considered speech. However, having established that, a host of other issues arose, such as offensive writing versus satire, and the right to publication versus the right to live in a comfortable and diverse environment.

Where are the lines when it comes to satirical writing and its potential to offend? In the wake of Gravity, it is still unclear, and there are no mechanisms in place to ensure that the Gravity incident isn’t repeated once the parties involved graduate.

If discussions take place and no one hears them…

“It just completely blew me away how much people were offended by it,” said Ben Douglas ’08, former Editor in Chief of Gravity Magazine. “You could tell there was a seeming consensus that this went over the line and a lot of people were hurt.”

Douglas acknowledged that the ad probably shouldn’t have gone into the magazine. “Versus its offensive content, the humor was just not great enough,” he said.

However, as Douglas explained, after the magazine printed and it became apparent that there was a negative reaction on campus, a lot of discussions went on to find a resolution to the situation. The problem is that no one knows these discussions happened.

“[Justin] Kang [‘09] organized a meeting and it went amazingly well,” said Douglas. “I felt like a lot of things that needed to be said were said. No one outside of who went to those meetings knows about it…and they didn’t get to hear any of those conversations.”

This is a story echoed by Associate Dean for Student Life Jamele Adams, who facilitated meetings between Gravity and the students affected by the controversial piece.

“Folks that were offended and folks that created offense sitting at a table; at Gravity, that’s exactly what happened,” he said. “Those parties came together. Folks got to understand why this was an issue for other folks…Not a lot of people know that happened.”

The consensus reached in the discussions Douglas and Adams reference did not reach the student body. As such, only the students involved developed a sense of how to address situations like this. But was this case decided the correct way anyway? Who should decide whether or not speech is protected or offensive?

Who decides when jokes aren’t funny?

“I don’t know if it’s necessarily [that] the issue is always free speech, but more that of offensive language,” said Adams. “Sometimes the two get intertwined because people use them interchangeably.” Adams added that situations such as the one involving Gravity help the university to define and redefine what is offensive.

“Free speech is cornerstoned with culture and cultural bias. It serves as a supplement to the educational moment,” he said. “We’re human, we have the propensity to offend each other.”

Satire does walk the fine line between offense and useful social commentary. For Professor of Journalism Eileen McNamara, satire and comedy writers should make sure that there are processes inside the organization that will ensure quality control.

“Students should remind themselves just how hard satire is to write. Make sure it’s funny before you publish,” she said.

McNamara added that one thing publications such as Gravity can do is to have multiple sets of eyes looking at the pieces before they print. Also, they should make sure “that sets of eyes are not all the same.” At the same time though, McNamara said that firing students is not the answer, as the educational moment is then lost.

“I always cringe when they start firing kids,” she said. “What has the person who wrote a lame piece of satire learned?”

So some of the responsibility for policing offensive material can be placed on the publications themselves. But after publication, who decides whether or not satire was went too far?

Unfortunately, as the Gravity situation played itself out over the final weeks of the semester, there was ample confusion over which entity on campus was responsible for handling it. As outlined in Part I of this series, the only document existing that defines speech rights on campus is Rights & Responsibilities. There is a section in R&R barring “jokes, comments or innuendos that make fun of, denigrate or are based on an individual’s protected group status,” but the vagueness of those terms offers little guidance.

“We still don’t have a system to define when does something go over the line. We don’t have a system for judging freedom of speech, and that created the kind of confusion in instances like this,” said Douglas.

Technically, complaints about violations of R&R are directed towards the Office of Student Conduct and Development, headed by Erika Lamarre. But complaints to that office can’t be made against an organization, only individual students on a case by case basis.

With Gravity, the Student Union dealt with the issue, since Gravity is a Union chartered organization. However, that contradicted the jurisdiction of the conduct office over R&R violations. In any instance, Douglas felt that the Union was unprepared to decide Gravity’s fate.

“They made this decision without the amount of knowledge they should have had,” he said. “They weren’t supposed to determine whether we broke Rights and Responsibilities.”

Still, Douglas and Union President Shreeya Sinha ’09 managed to broker an understanding that Douglas would step down and that Gravity would not print a magazine in the Fall ’07 semester.

However, this situation did nothing to alter the framework within which these discussions take place. The rules regarding satire are ambiguously defined, and there is nowhere to air a grievance, if one doesn’t want to take an individual writer into the student conduct process.

When Gravity writers prepared to print again this semester, there still remained no standard for them to consult during the writing process. Even so, editor Jonathan Zornow ’08 acknowledged that the organization scrutinized articles more closely for its Spring ’08 release than it did in previous years.

“For this issue we spent a lot of time debating specific articles,” Zornow said. “Because we’re funded and supported by the university, and we have a responsibility to the students, if that means not printing things that are deeply offensive, then so be it.”

While this is a step in the right direction, it does not affect groups outside of Gravity. The Hoot went through a similar process when it printed a poem entitled “I Hate You Thugs.” After that incident, those inside The Hoot applied the lessons learned, but those lessons did not extend to other groups. When the editors who went through these incidents graduate, the lessons will leave with them.

Each of these cases was dealt with on an ad hoc basis; in the case of a group firmly standing by its work, will the conduct office be brought in? Technically, a student could face the conduct board simply for writing something that was deemed offensive, even though, constitutionally, they have a right to print it.

Who protects the students who want to print something they see as legitimate? Who protects the offended students? For Brandeis these are important questions without answers. And unless it is sorted out, history can repeat itself.

The next article in this series will discuss the closing of the Voices of Palestine exhibit in Fall ‘06 and the difficulties Brandeis has faced discussing the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Editor’s note: Ben Douglas is a Hoot editor.