Free Speech Hijacked

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Leave it to a nine-foot snow penis to spark a fierce First-Amendment debate. The legitimacy of free speech rights is being challenged on Harvard’s campus once again, this time by the very people who have invoked them.

According to Mary C. Cardinale ’02-’03, one of the phallus-breakers, the sculpture’s defenders labeled it a legitimate exercise of “free speech.” It is difficult to accept such a defense at face value, since “speech” suggests that those who built the snow penis were actually saying something.

But by their own account, they weren’t. Confronted with feminist speculation that the phallus symbolized the power of masculinity, one of the creators responded simply: “Smart kids overanalyze things.” The same creator called the sculpture a “junior high prank.”

This fracas should not concern free speech, when the creators themselves acknowledge they had nothing profound to say. Transforming the question of free speech to defend displays like the snow phallus – created not in spite of it being obscene, but because it was obscene—corrupts the First Amendment’s legitimacy as a valid defense for real artistic expression.

The debate over the snow phallus is not the first time college students have applied free-speech arguments to similarly degrading examples. For example, at Wesleyan University last fall, College President Douglas S. Bennet finally banned the practice of “chalking,” a euphemism for students scribbling smut on campus sidewalks, and a mainstream medium of expression at a lot of other schools nationwide. Bennet worried that the chalked slogans on Wesleyan’s campus were getting too obscene; some made pornographic references to faculty members. Opponents of his decision equate the chalked obscenities with free expression.

The problem on college campuses is two-fold: First, students invoke “free speech” to perpetuate indecency without censure. Second, students invoke “free speech” selectively.

Defenders of the phallus called the sculpture “art” because they enjoyed this particular joke. As an indication of the defenders’ commitment to free expression in general, phallus-breaker Amy E. Keel ’04 says they threatened her when she tried to exercise her own rights to free expression and demolish the sculpture.

The chalk-wielding vandals’ commitment to free speech is even more suspect. As Los Angeles Times columnist Norah Vincent notes, the same students chalking their campuses with tasteless drawings and slogans also push for speech codes and steal conservative campus publications from the newsstands. Vincent aptly describes students who defend smut like the snow penis and then shift the debate from decency to free speech rights: “self-entitled, sophomoric pranksters falling back on high principles when it suits them.” Student “artists” of the snow-phallus variety have hijacked the meaning of free expression, by relying on it to justify obscenity for obscenity’s own sake.

Following a very different kind of free-speech controversy last November, Peretz professor of Yiddish literature Ruth R. Wisse wrote in a Crimson op-ed: “Free speech being one of democracy’s dearest privileges, we should use it to protect and honor those worthiest of our esteem.” Wisse’s standard applies nicely to the current debate. Students citing the Constitution to defend every act of obscenity and rabble-rousing on college campuses should show more discretion when deciding what speech is worthy of their esteem.

—Luke Smith is an editorial editor.