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Send out the clowns
The UMass censorship machine strikes again

LIKE PATRONS of the Grand Hotel in the classic movie of the same name, administrators at the University of Massachusetts Amherst come and go, but nothing ever happens ó at least as far as the schoolís longstanding devotion to unconstitutional censorship is concerned. Always advanced in the name of some alleged higher principle, UMassís history of censorship is actually rooted in a mundane bureaucratic need for order. And that makes it all the more screwball.

Many may remember the opposition UMass expressed when notorious gay-basher Paul Cameron was asked to give a speech on campus two decades ago. But itís also important to recall that 10 years earlier, New Left darlings such as Angela Davis also found themselves facing the wrath of a similarly censorship-happy, right-wing administration (Davis was required to provide for and pay for her own security when she spoke at UMass in the late 1970s). Even though the ideological pendulum has swung in the other direction ó toward the multicultural left ó the tactics and methods the university uses to stifle free debate on campus remain as shameless and despicable as ever.

UMASSíS MOST recent victim is the ancient art of political parody ó this time involving a minority-student organization that made accusations of racism against other students. On March 26 of this year, a group of student-government leaders got together in the Office of the Student Center for Educational Research and Advocacy (SCERA), in the UMass Campus Center, for a party following student-government elections. Present at the party was Patrick Higgins, Speaker of the Student Government Association (SGA) and an unsuccessful candidate for SGA president. During the party, a student drew a caricature of Higgins on a dry-erase board hanging on a wall. In the picture, Higginsís tongue was drooping out of his mouth, giving him a decidedly moronic appearance, and he was wearing a pointed hat and white cape reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan uniform. He was shown holding a burning cross, and the inscription grand wizard was emblazoned on his shirt. A speech bubble had him saying, "I love ALANA!!", a reference to a student group composed of "African, Latino/a, Asian/Pacific Islander, and Native American" students at UMass.

The drawing of Higgins was a clear reference to the just-concluded SGA-election campaign in which ALANA had accused him of being a "racist." Higgins had opposed a controversial UMass quota system that would set aside a certain number of guaranteed positions for ALANA members in the SGA Senate. It did not take a very high IQ to realize that the drawing of Higgins as a mentally deficient KKK member was a parody meant to poke fun at his accusers. The point of the parody was quite clear: it was a transparent effort to ridicule Higginsís accusers, who argued presumptuously that anyone opposed to racial quotas is a racist.

Photographs were taken at the party, and several depicted the drawing along with various attendees striking silly poses. The photos found their way onto the Web site of student Brian Roberts, one of the revelers. Months later, another student discovered the photographs and circulated them along with a demand that the students standing around the drawing be expelled from student government. Some students insisted that the parodists be expelled from the university. The trouble then escalated.

Higginsís successful opponent in the student-government election, SGA president Eduardo Bustamante, called for action against Higgins. Seeing an opportunity to pander to would-be student censors supposedly fighting racism and to avert yet another embarrassing imbroglio on the benighted campus, Vice-Chancellor Michael Gargano went even further than Bustamante and called not only for the student parodistsí removal from office, but for their subjection to official discipline for supposedly violating university policies against "harassment." Of course, that move not only failed to quiet the controversy, but it ignited an even more intense battle and began to garner national attention. In order to hammer the last nail in the parodistsí coffin, Gargano sought to add a charge concerning consumption of alcohol at the party and other minor violations. Clearly, however, racial "harassment" was the central charge.

The technical charge was for "harassment conduct less than a physical attack." Here is the section of the UMass Code of Student Conduct that defines the supposed violation:

Conduct less than a physical attack or physical interference which interferes with a person in the conduct of his or her customary or usual affairs, such as the posting of threatening letters directed to the person, the use of threatening language directed at another, harassing or threatening telephone calls, or the vandalism of a personís room (e.g., graffiti). The University has special concern for incidents in which students are subject to such conduct because of membership in a particular racial, religious, gender or sexual orientation group.

The notion that parody, much less the cartoonish drawing in this case, constitutes harassment, a threat, or interference with another studentís ability to conduct his or her life affairs is ludicrous on its face. However, even if one were to buy the notion that a student of normal (or even abnormal) sensibilities would find such a parody immobilizing, the fact remains that UMass is a public university bound by the constrictions of the First Amendmentís free-speech guarantee. Hence, the parody is clearly fully protected speech.

The most recent binding affirmation of this protection of parody came from the US Supreme Court in 1988, when it reviewed the lawsuit filed by the Reverend Jerry Falwell against Hustler publisher Larry Flynt. Flynt published a parody that claimed the good reverend lost his virginity in a drunken orgy with his own mother in an outhouse. Falwell sued for, among other things, "the intentional infliction of emotional distress," a species of harassment claim. A unanimous Supreme Court ruled in favor of Flynt and Hustler, noting: "The appeal of the political cartoon or caricature is often based on exploration of unfortunate physical traits or politically embarrassing events ó an exploration often calculated to injure the feelings of the subject of the portrayal. The art of the cartoonist is often not reasoned or evenhanded, but slashing and one-sided." In other words, the very purpose of parody is to wound the sensibilities of the target. This is not "harassment," but, rather, 100 percent constitutionally protected speech.

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Issue Date: October 29 - November 4, 2004
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