Travis Cornejo resigned as editor-in-chief of The Maneater in the wake of the April Fools’ Day parody. On Thursday, the Office of Student Conduct called Cornejo and said, in effect, to ignore its Tuesday letter to him. Thank goodness.
The letter had spoken of two "possible violations of University regulations":
- Obstruction or disruption of teaching, research administration, conduct proceedings, or other University activities, including its public service functions on or off campus. Specifically: You allegedly participated in the editing process of the April Fools' Maneater Publication which disrupted the University community by printing offensive articles.
- Disruptive or disorderly conduct or lewd, indecent, or obscene conduct or expression. Specifically: You allegedly participated in the editing process of the April Fools' Maneater Publication in which several articles were disruptive, lewd, offensive, and indecent to people in the University community.
The First Amendment was not designed to protect pretty speech. Pretty speech needs no protection. The First Amendment protects offensive and sometimes even lewd, disruptive and indecent speech.
The University has already been through a similar brouhaha and came up on the losing end in the U.S. Supreme Court’s 6 to 3 decision in Papish v. University of Missouri Board of Curators, 410 U.S. 667 (1973).
Barbara Papish, a graduate student at the School of Journalism, got expelled for selling a newspaper, the Free Press Underground, on campus. The newspaper's cover featured a political cartoon of policemen raping the Statue of Liberty and the Goddess of Justice. The newspaper also contained an article about a member of an organization called "Up Against the Wall Motherf***er." He had been acquitted of assault in New York. The headline read "Motherf***er Acquitted."
The University’s Student Conduct Committee found that Papish had violated a section of the General Standards of Student Conduct that required students "to observe generally accepted standards of conduct." The standards specifically prohibited "indecent conduct or speech." Before Papish was dismissed, the chancellor and Board of Curators affirmed the decision. Using federal law, 42 U.S.C.§ 1983, Papish took her case to federal court in Kansas City, charging that state officials had violated her right to freedom of expression. Although she lost there, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed. The High Court said Papish was "dismissed because of the disapproved content of the newspaper..." The Court held: "The mere dissemination of ideas — no matter how offensive to good taste — on a state university campus may not be shut off in the name alone of 'conventions of decency.'"
Offensive parodies have also received broad protection. The U.S. Supreme Court in Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell, 485 U.S. 46 (1988), extolled the virtues of the First Amendment even where offensive speech is involved.
Hustler magazine ran a parody advertisement, with the Rev. Jerry Falwell talking about his "first time" with his mother in an outhouse. The parody went from the outhouse to the courthouse when Falwell sued Hustler magazine and its publisher, Larry Flynt. Falwell's attorney asked the Supreme Court, in effect, to hold that even in cases involving a parody, the state's interest in protecting public figures from emotional distress was sufficient to deny First Amendment protection to that speech. The Court refused.
Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote the unanimous Falwell opinion. In its glowing endorsement of free speech, the Supreme Court made clear its interest in preserving the "free trade of ideas" — even when the speech is patently offensive and is intended to inflict emotional distress. The High Court expressed concern over the chilling effect on political cartoons if plaintiffs who could not collect for libel were allowed to collect for emotional distress. "The appeal of the political cartoon or caricature is often based on exploration of unfortunate physical traits or politically embarrassing events — an exploration often calculated to injure the feelings of the subject of the portrayal." History is on the side of "caustic" cartoons, the Court said: "[F]rom the early cartoon portraying George Washington as an ass down to the present day, graphical depictions and satirical cartoons have played a prominent role in public and political debate."
Falwell's attorney argued that the parody ad should be distinguished from the "more traditional political cartoons" because the ad was so "outrageous." But the Court said that using "outrageousness" as a standard in the area of political and social speech is simply too subjective. It would let juries impose liability based on their tastes or dislikes. The Court wanted “to give adequate 'breathing space' to the freedoms protected by the First Amendment.”
A Mizzou administrator threatening to violate a student’s First Amendment rights even after the U.S. Supreme Court slapped down the University for similar behavior and even after the Court gave broad protection to lewd parodies? Now that’s offensive and outrageous!
No, The Maneater parody edition is not clever. It is offensive, but it is also expression protected from state interference on a state university campus.
As for the facts, the allegation that Travis Cornejo participated in the "editing process" of the parody edition is simply incorrect. Cornejo says he did not edit it. The former editor of The Maneater, Zach Toombs, said the April Fools’ edition is done by staff, not the editor-in-chief. Professor Emeritus George Kennedy, who chaired the Student Publication Committee 20 years ago, also confirmed that The Maneater’s tradition is that the editor-in-chief not participate in the production of the April Fools’ parody issue but to be surprised by its content.
In short, the missive from the Office of Student Conduct was wrong on both the facts and the law. Now Cornejo can ignore what he should never have received.
Perhaps what the University needs is some sensitivity training — gender and LGBTQ sensitivity training to avoid offensive language on the part of The Maneater staff, and First Amendment sensitivity training to avoid future legal gaffes by administrators in the Office of Student Conduct.
Sandy Davidson, Ph.D., J.D., is a professor at the Missouri School of Journalism.