The pains of free speech

Tim Smith

Free speech is such a pain in the butt.

A couple incidents involving that pesky First Amendment put the Kent State administration in a bind last week, and I feel sorry for my friends in high places – not something that happens often.

First, there was the episode with and student athletes. Athletic Director Laing Kennedy announced that athletes may be barred from using the social network phenomenon because of its potential for harm.

Seems some athletes were less than discreet in discussing personal activities that didn’t reflect well on themselves, their teammates or the university. Worse, professional sports agents may have contacted some athletes as a result of what had appeared on those personal Internet sites. (Apparently, the agents were unaware of the existence of college athletes until they conducted a Google search for “clueless jocks.”)

That event was followed by the Chi Omega sorority formal last weekend, where a sister was recognized as the “Blackest Chi Omega.” In case you haven’t been following the news, the sister was white, not black.

One result is that the sorority has been ordered by the Center for Student Involvement to suspend its community service and social events.

There will now be an investigation and sensitivity training and an apology, and the usual, predictable results of doing something stupid. I’m familiar with the concept. It happened to the Daily Kent Stater last fall when a columnist wrote something stupid about blacks and insensitive names. Black students were angered, the Ohio Civil Rights Commission chairman showed up on campus for a day of bluster and bullying, apologies were issued and training promised. All-in-all not a bad outcome. Some lessons were probably learned.

But there was one difference. Despite demands for harsher action, the First Amendment’s feathers didn’t get ruffled. Even the University Legal Counsel, not always a big fan of the Stater, came to the paper’s defense when some folks talked about demanding remedies that infringed on free speech.

I do hope that happens in these current cases as well.

Faculty in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication regularly warn students about showing common sense when posting material on Facebook or Those pages are on the Internet, and they are accessible globally, including by prospective employers. Students think their revelations, not to mention pictures, are cute and will be viewed by a very narrow audience. Not necessarily so.

But what our faculty doesn’t do is threaten students with a loss of their free speech rights, which seems to be the direction the Athletic Department and the Center for Student Involvement are heading.

I don’t know the rules regarding athletic scholarships and whether they can be withdrawn for saying something stupid in public. Just think of the devastating impact on sports pages if that were true.

As for the Chi Omegas, the “I’m-white-and-you’re-not” attitude smacks of incredible arrogance, elitism, insensitivity and I’m running out of pejorative terms. As with the athletes-and-scholarship issue, I’m not entirely sure community service and social events fall beneath the umbrella of the First Amendment, but I’ll bet they’re close, if not fully covered.

Sheryl Smith, director of the Center for Student Involvement, is looking into the matter. I can only hope, again, that the remedies settled on don’t include any further encroachment on free speech.

That’s the trouble with speech. It is always the arrogant, elitist, stupid stuff that we’re forced to defend. But if we don’t, then all the other insightful, intelligent, useful stuff is at risk.

Like I said, a pain in the butt.

Timothy D. Smith is a professor of journalism and mass communication and a guest columnist for the Daily Kent Stater. Contact him at [email protected].