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Disorderly end to orderly protest

Protestor files report against math professor, cites destruction of property

Associate News Editor

Published: Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Updated: Tuesday, September 27, 2011 01:09

Free Speech Wall 9-27-11

Jessica Gomez | The Houstonian

THE RIGHT TO SWEAR. Students exercised their right to free speech Thursday through a “Free Speech Wall” that was erected in the second floor atrium of the Lee Drain Building. The wall was taken down by the protestors after a math professor Joe Kirk, Ph.D., took a box cutter to the wall and removed the word “fuck” from “Fuck Obama,” which was written on the wall several times. Morgan Freeman, president of the SHSU Lovers of Liberty, filed a police report against Kirk with the Huntsville Municpal

A police report has been passed on to the Huntsville Municipal Court after incidents at the "Free Speech Wall" protest on Friday.

The "Wall" was a collection of wooden boards covered with white parchment paper that spanned the width of the Lee Drain Building atrium on the second floor. Event organizer Morgan Freeman, president of SHSU Lovers of Liberty, said students were allowed to write "whatever they want[ed]."

According to event organizers, at approximately 2:30 p.m., math professor Joe Kirk, Ph.D. became upset at the phrase "Fuck Obama" that was written predominantly on the sign. Below that section another student wrote, "Fuck Bush." Several other profane phrases were scattered all about the sign.

In a report that Freeman filed, Kirk told students that he would take measures into his own hands. She said Kirk then left and returned with a box-cutter before carving out the word "fuck." The word was quickly replaced by another student.

Freeman said the student organizations quickly called UPD on the advice of an employee in the Dean of Sciences' Office. After officers showed up, they took statements from students and the math professor. 

University Police Deputy Chief Fitch said officers returned and told the organizations they had three options: censor the word "fuck," put up new paper, or take the sign down completely. Failure to do so, officers said, would result in the groups being cited for Disorderly Conduct, a misdemeanor. 

Ultimately, the group chose to comply with the officers' request due to the excessive use of the word in question. Kenneth Hendrickson, faculty adviser for SHSU Lovers of Liberty, said that any attempt to censor the words would leave virtually no room for any additional writing.

The charge is listed in Section 42.01 of the Texas Penal Code:

"A person commits an offense if he intentionally or knowingly; (1) uses abusive, indecent, profane, or vulgar language in a public place, and the language by its very utterance tends to incite an immediate breach of the peace."

Students had permission from the Dean of the College of Sciences' Office to hold the protest in the atrium.

In addition, the box cutter-wielding professor and SHSU University Police Department are the targets of a letter sent to University President Dana Gibson by a national civil rights group.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) tells Gibson the group is "deeply concerned" by the actions taken by both the professor and the UPD at the"Free Speech Wall" protest on Sept. 22. Students organizing the event were protesting the proposed SHSU Social Media Policy and Procedures Manual.

Adam Kissel, Vice-President of Programs at FIRE, who wrote the letter to Gibson, said there are only "very few exceptions" to free speech statutes, and that the students did not violate the law.

"The professor was the only one who decided to take it upon himself to breech the peace, and it wasn't immediate," he said.

In his letter to Gibson, Kissel cites several United States Supreme Court cases as a defense of the organizations.

They included:

Texas v. Johnson: "[i]f there there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable."

Papish v. Board of Curators of the University of Missouri"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."

Kissel made one of his biggest points in the case of Cohen v. California.

"As a public university, SHSU cannot lawfully ban 'four-letter words' no matter how offensive some may find them," Kissel said. "[Cohen v. California] made clear that the First Amendment protects shocking or offensive expression, including the use of expletives in the communication of core political speech."

The 1971 case revolved around an incident in which Paul Cohen, a Vietnam veteran, walked into the Los Angeles Courthouse wearing a jacket that read "Fuck the Draft." He was arrested for "maliciously and willfully disturb[ing] the peace."

The case was upheld by the California Court of Appeals. The U.S. Supreme Court then grant a writ of certiorari Cohen after the California Supreme Court denied a review.

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