Parody flunks out

By HARVEY SILVERGLATE  |  July 30, 2008

At around the same time as the Gravity debacle, a black student filed harassment charges against the editors of the conservative student newspaper at Tufts University, the Primary Source. At issue was a satirical Christmas carol, written from the point of view of an undergraduate-admissions officer, titled “O Come All Ye Black Folk,” that harshly criticized race-based admissions. Muslim students followed suit, filing similar charges in response to a parody of Tufts’ “Islamic Awareness Week,” which pointed out unflattering but verifiably true doctrines and practices of Islam. In May, a campus disciplinary body composed of students and faculty found the newspaper guilty of “harassment” and creating a “hostile environment,” and imposed editorial restrictions on the newspaper. Under pressure from free-speech advocates, including the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (disclosure: I serve as chairman of FIRE’s board), the university president lifted the penalty, but refused to vacate the finding that a violation occurred.

Similar complaints about the 2004 April Fool’s Day edition at the University of Scranton resulted in the small Jesuit college shutting down the student newspaper, the Aquinas. According to the Scranton Times Tribune, the spoof included a “fictitious reference to a priest caught fooling around with a woman during the screening of The Passion of the Christ” and a cartoon depicting a brawl between the former and current university presidents. The university changed the door locks of the newspaper office and removed all remaining copies of the spoof from campus. According to the school’s Web site, the Aquinas has not published an article since April 2004. University spokesman Gerry Zaboski defended the punishment by explaining that the newspaper, funded entirely by the college, was primarily an “opportunity for students really to explore and learn and apply what they have experienced in a classroom or what they may have an interest in doing in a real setting.”

But one could argue that the editors of the Aquinas were punished for doing exactly that — applying their classroom experience and exploring a real-world career in parody. Works like A Modest Proposal and King Leopold’s Soliloquy are mainstays of introductory literature classes, even at religious colleges such as Scranton, and so parody, in theory, is fully protected by academic freedom. Scranton finds itself in the awkward position of defending a punishment that Swift and Twain would have vehemently opposed. Of course, it can be argued that a religious parochial institution should have the power to control the extent to which campus publications satirize the clergy and poke fun at church doctrines. But once a religious school chooses to portray itself as devoted to the liberal arts, as Scranton has, academic freedom makes some demands that religious observance might find uncomfortable.

In truth, it is unlikely that any of the aspiring comedians and social commentators in question are all racists or misogynists. In more than one instance, the authors of an offensive or “harassing” parody were themselves members of the ethnic group they were accused of maligning. It’s just that these students, raised on a television diet of South Park and Family Guy, seem to have made one crucial mistake: they thought edgy humor would be as well-received on a campus as it is on Comedy Central. The rash of free-speech controversies proves they were wrong.

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