Parody flunks out

By HARVEY SILVERGLATE  |  July 30, 2008

For college administrators, dealing with this brand of humor is complicated by the fact that, by definition, parody requires adopting the form of the very thing it ridicules. This often leads to a basic disagreement that underlies the New Yorker’s Obama-cover contretemps: does the satire perpetuate, or ridicule, the bigotry? For example, some students accused the Daily Princetonian of racism in 2006 over a faux letter to Princeton, written in broken English, from a fictitious person named Lian Ji. The parody was clearly referring to Jian Li, the Asian-American student who filed a civil-rights complaint against the university after he was waitlisted (he eventually enrolled at Yale, and has since transferred to Harvard). Most of the editors, including a few Asian-Americans, defended the piece, writing in an open letter that “[they] embraced racist language in order to strangle it.” Princeton officials didn’t have much patience for this logic (the dean of student life told the New York Times that the editors showed “poor judgment” in publishing the parody), but unlike the University of Scranton, the school wisely allowed the controversy to run its course and did not punish the authors.

Conflating parody, harassment, and hate speech
Perhaps the greatest danger in punishing students for offensive parody is that tasteless (or even brilliant, for that matter) humor can all too easily be labeled “harassment” on our increasingly politically correct campuses. Harvard Law’s Administrative Board used that term liberally in its decision. Kennedy, the self-appointed leader of the anti-parody forces, went even further and equated the parody with a “terror” attack and a “direct threat of personal violence.” This thinking equates speech with action, and insult with violence — it’s a classic device resorted to by the censor.

This same logical disconnect is evident in the ruling handed down by the tribunal at Tufts. The Committee on Student Life concluded that the parodic Christmas carol “targeted [black students] on the basis of their race, subjected them to ridicule and embarrassment, intimidated them, and had a deleterious impact on their growth and well-being on campus.” The committee concluded that the parody of the Islamic Awareness Week flyer “targeted members of the Tufts Muslim community for harassment and embarrassment.”

Under the First Amendment, the statement of a point of view, no matter how hateful, is protected speech, as long as it avoids true threats and the time, place, and manner of delivery are reasonable. If the editors of the Primary Source had telephoned black students repeatedly in the middle of the night and told them they were inferior, there would be a strong harassment claim. But there’s no disputing that “O Come All Ye Black Folk” was, at its core, political speech, and it was delivered in a traditional manner for such speech: print.

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