Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Suppressing Speech

No, this post isn't about Wikileaks, but rather about punishing parody at Syracuse University:
SUCOLitis aspires to be something like The Onion of law-school life. The Syracuse, N.Y., satirical news blog has attracted thousands of views with fake headlines about beer pong, third-year students serving burritos, and the election of the university’s "sexiest Semite." It delights in attributing fake quotes to students and faculty, as well as to famous alumni like Vice President Joe Biden, who is quoted as calling SUCOLitis "even funnier than me."

Syracuse University officials aren’t laughing.
According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, the law school:
has threatened a student with "harassment" charges for the last two months because of the content of a satirical blog about life in law school, but the university has refused to tell him what expression in particular justified the charges or even who is charging him. Worse still, [the law school] is now demanding a gag order on law student Len Audaer, his attorney, and any media outlets that receive information about the case. Audaer, who potentially faces expulsion, came to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for help.
The SUCOLitis blog is no longer public.

As law prof Ann Althouse notes, attributing fake quotes to real people is problematic--Google can't filter out parody from a search. But threatening expulsion and seeking a gag order seem a bit heavy-handed.

Had that been the policy when I was an undergrad there, I might never have got a degree.


O Bloody Hell said...

> As law prof Ann Althouse notes, attributing fake quotes to real people is problematic--Google can't filter out parody from a search.

1) This suggests a problem with Google, not with the blog. I'd say it's reasonably obvious that this suggests that there needs to be a tag that Google and other search engines can latch onto with their spiderbots and mark the data in question as humorous or not to be taken seriously. Google could then either exclude it or mark it as likely specious in origin.

2) It seems rather clear that any action other than "1" suggests would have an a priori effect of cooling the important free-speech capacity for parody and satire -- it could be applied in all too many circumstances.

3) I'd agree that such sites should very clearly indicate to users that any quotes may well be specious.

Carl said...

All well and good, OBH, but we live in the real world. Neither Syracuse University nor "the government" can order Google to change its search engine to tag parody (that, too, would be a free speech issue). So, the question is "what to do now?" Expulsion and gagging clearly are overbroad, but it's reasonable for the university to demand its students to make the kind of disclosure you recommend in #3, spread copiously throughout the blog.

William said...

The blog had a clear disclaimer, and it would be immediately obvious to everybody that the material was a parody. If you judge somebody on the basis of a snippet you find on Google and then don't even click on the link, whose problem is that?

Carl said...

William: I mostly agree, as indicated above. Still, I'm troubled by fake quotes from non-public figures (e.g., students). I would hate, for example, to have someone fake a quote from me using a racial epithet--even if it was intended as parody.