If you ever wonder why university presidents get paid the big bucks, consider the week Richard McCormick is having.
On one side, the Rutgers University president is being pressed by state Jewish leaders to treat a satirical newspaper’s attack on a Jewish student as a bias incident.
On the other side you have a First Amendment watchdog group warning the university to save itself from the “embarrassing prospect” of a free speech case it cannot win.
And somewhere in the middle are folks like me, who think the satire was grotesque and undeserved, that free speech undoubtedly applies, but that somehow a line has been crossed.
To recap: Last month, The Medium, a satirical campus newspaper, published an April Fool’s issue. It featured a column parodying Aaron Marcus, a vocal pro-Israel activist who writes a real column for the campus newspaper, The Daily Targum. In the parody column, the fake Marcus praises Hitler.
The Zionist Organization of America and the Anti-Defamation League responded with outrage. Marcus filed a bias complaint. McCormick said the university would investigate the incident. “No individual student should be subject to such a vicious and provocative and hurtful piece, regardless of whether the First Amendment protections apply to such expression,” McCormick said.
Jewish leaders called for swift action, First Amendment notwithstanding. The ZOA labeled the piece “appalling, defamatory, and anti-Semitic.” Max Kleinman, executive vice president of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ, wrote in these pages, “There are those who would excuse these actions as immature pranks or defend their right to publish this venom under the cloak of the First Amendment,” adding, “There needs to be ‘red lines’ on acceptable behavior at Rutgers….”
And yet, among those who would defend the students’ right to publish is the Supreme Court of the United States. In Hustler Magazine, Inc., v. Falwell (1988), the Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment protects even the “most blatantly ridiculing, outlandishly offensive parody.” Peter Bonilla of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) pointed this out in a letter to McCormick. As a result of that ruling, added Bonilla, “Rutgers may not punish the newspaper, its editors, or any of its writers simply due to the offense it has caused Marcus and others.”
But although the law seems clear, the principle seems out of whack: At what point does freedom of the press become a cover for jerks, and allow them to do in print something that would get them suspended or censured were they to do it face to face or on line? If a kid calls another kid a “Jewish Hitler lover” in the cafeteria or on Facebook, wouldn’t that lead to disciplinary action? But because The Medium does it under the guise of satire and publishes it by the thousands, it’s protected speech?
I put this question to Will Creeley, director of legal and public advocacy at FIRE. He directed me to the Supreme Court’s definition of “peer-on-peer harassment”: discriminatory behavior that is “so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive, and that so undermines and detracts from the victims’ educational experience, that the victim-students are effectively denied equal access to an institution’s resources and opportunities.”
The university would have a hard time classifying The Medium piece — clearly labeled as satire — as harassment under this definition, said Creeley, even under the university’s Code of Student Conduct.
“Context counts here,” said Creeley. “Insofar as we are talking about a satirical April Fool’s post, I don’t think that [amounts to] the kind of fighting-words instance that you are describing.”
Creeley cited The Onion, a satirical newspaper that often depicts Vice President Joe Biden as a hard-drinking, womanizing redneck. “The Joe Biden we see in the pages of The Onion does ridiculous things, but folks understand it is artificial and clearly not Joe Biden,” said Creeley. “We give satirists a wide berth to do those kinds of statements. Really, context counts here.”
Which means any calls for Rutgers to “punish” The Medium’s editors are bound to be futile and even to backfire, through no fault of the university.
And already there are signs of a backlash against “censorship”: Paul Mulshine, a columnist for The Star-Ledger, blasted the bias investigation, saying the “campus p.c. patrol is at it again.” He was particularly hard on Marcus, calling him a “knucklehead” who didn’t seem to understand “how satire works.” Alex Lewis, a student columnist for The Targum (and a former FIRE intern) ridiculed outsiders who might complain that their tax dollars are funding The Medium. “[T]heir argument is flawed for the same reason that people with opposing political views are still allowed to drive on the same roads as them,” Lewis wrote.
But while Mulshine, Lewis, and the law may be on the side of The Medium, none seems to take into account the hurt and anger felt by Marcus and a Jewish community rubbed raw in recent years by the trivialization of the Holocaust and the delegitimization of Israel. If The Medium can’t be punished, how else is it to get the message? McCormick’s response, describing the satire as “vicious and provocative and hurtful,” is at least a good start.