The Arizona Desert Lamp

FIRE’s selective interpretation of “freedom of expression”

Posted in Campus, Politics by Evan Lisull on 15 October 2009

FIREFIRE is a linchpin in the RSS pipeline, so it was nice to see the UA get some coverage on its blog. Yet even for this adamantly pro-liberty site, their argument seemed to be quite the stretch:

The University of Arizona has reversed course and permitted the College Republicans to screen the film Not Evil, Just Wrong as originally scheduled, just days after telling the group that its reservation was being cancelled [sic] due to a scheduling mistake. The “mix-up” was discovered only 11 days before the event, making it difficult to reschedule. After a joint investigation by FIRE and a UA College Republicans (UACR) leader showed that the scheduling conflict might not have been a mistake, the screening was placed back on the schedule for October 18.

The rest of the details can be found at the post, but none of it suggests the derisive finger-quoting of “mix-up.” Students at the UA would hardly be shocked to hear yet another story of administrative incompetence, and there’s really nothing to suggest that CSIL did anything more than make a characteristic flub. (Although to be fair, the University certainly wants to exercise more control over the school during Family Weekend than almost any other time during the year.)

Usually, this wouldn’t merit more than a querulously raised eyebrow, but with relief that the movie is ultimately getting the OK. Yet the cries of “freedom of expression” that FIRE gave to this case stand in sharp contrast to their tepid response to the chalkings a few weeks ago. Here was what FIRE wrote in response to my colleague’s case submission (emphasis added):

Dear Mr. Mendenhall:

Thank you for alerting FIRE to this case and for mentioning us in your blog. Chalking on sidewalks is not necessarily protected expression (chalking on buildings is probably not protected much if at all), so I am glad that the criminal charges were dropped. The university’s statement suggests that chalking on sidewalks is ok so long as it is not “on surfaces other than the ground and sidewalks.” At other schools chalking even on sidewalks might be considered defacing property, so it may well be that UA is doing more than the minimum in permitting sidewalk chalk.

I hope you will continue to press for students’ rights on campus in the hope of making Univ. of Arizona a “green light” university!
Best regards,

Adam Kissel
Director, Individual Rights Defense Program, FIRE

Mr. Kissel’s statements may very well be factually accurate, but FIRE’s stated objective – their entire reason for existence – is to openly challenge these sorts of regulations. It should also be pointed out that no one has a “right” to a movie screening, and that the theater could easily cite its authority in deciding its own schedule – should that mean that FIRE must accept the scheduling decision? It seems odd to assume that the University is acting maliciously and lying about a movie schedule mix-up, but to assume that they are telling the truth and acting in accordance with the First Amendment when it comes to charges of criminal damage against messages that they don’t like. It also seems odd to think that rescheduling difficulties are a more onerous burden on speech than the possibility of jail time.

A full breakdown of FIRE’s case selection is far too laborious for now, but the trend for the UA is plainly obvious. Scheduling muck-ups of an anti-Al-Gore movies get covered, but criminal citations for chalking do not. Publishing a drawing relating to the Mohammed cartoons in face of censorial forces got a whole write-up in 2006, but the repeated attempts at censoring other cartoons raised nary a batted eye. A security fee for David Horowitz is unconscionable, but the theft of 10,000 newspapers is nothing to be concerned about.

FIRE is an unfortunately busy institution, as attempts at limiting civil liberties are more common on campus than almost anywhere else. It’s one of the great institutions and resources for college students, who would be worse off without it. Yet when it comes to the UA, FIRE might try to take on cases outside of “things that the College Republicans don’t like.” Nobody likes a fair-weather defender of civil liberties.


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