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Law school tests First Amendment in crackdown on ‘unprofessional’ speech, student paper

Ex-chancellor wanted to punish students for ‘alleged racial and homophobic slurs’

Louisiana State University’s law school is weighing whether to impose “standards” on its student newspaper and punish students for “unprofessional” speech as part of a broad review of its efforts to promote diversity.

The Civilian is one of several student newspapers around the country facing hostility from student activists and administrators who are offended by their news coverage, opinion and – possibly – satire.

Formed nearly a year ago by then-Chancellor Jack Weiss, after a law student complained that the LSU Law Center had a “clear lack of cultural competency,” the Diversity Task Force released its report late last month.

It was tasked with making recommendations on how to “help minority students succeed, foster camaraderie among all students, and promote better understanding of one another’s cultures and experiences,” the report says.

The task force acknowledged that it was relying on word-of-mouth evidence, collected over a single semester, to make recommendations.

Its mission was to “understand the current climate in the Law Center by engaging current students interested in conversing with Task Force members, in order to learn about their personal experiences,” not “to undertake empirical research or data analysis.”

As such, the report does not appear to set benchmarks for measuring the success of the recommendations once in place.

The Title IX office will review your articles now

One of the 17 recommendations is to institute oversight of The Civilian’s editorial board through a new Office of Student Affairs, which would also oversee other student organizations and handle Title IX complaints.

The report’s section on the newspaper is only two paragraphs long. It says the task force is “aware of numerous complaints” about The Civilian, including its publication of “comments that were considered sexist and racist and that negatively affect the culture of the Law Center.”

RELATED: Student journalists launch indie newspaper while their censorship lawsuit plays out

The task force recommends the Law Center appoint a faculty adviser to oversee the paper before the proposed Office of Student Affairs is set up. The paper should also “adopt standards of professional journalism consistent with” an earlier report by Kenneth Murchison, professor emeritus of constitutional law at LSU.

Murchison wrote in that report, released in May, that Weiss tasked him with investigating whether the law school could legally punish students for “two incidents that involved alleged racial and homophobic slurs.” It became a larger review of “demeaning speech,” including student and professor remarks toward women.

Regarding the student paper, Murchison wrote that he interviewed “several individuals” who complained about offensive speech in The Civilian, most of which concerned women, “particularly female professors.”

“Although none of the examples I saw satisfied the strict constitutional standard for obscenity, the references were certainly offensive,” Murchison wrote, “and I doubt they would have been deemed acceptable journalism in any publication other than a sexual tabloid.”

RELATED: Student newspaper’s overseers accused of ‘campaign of intimidation’ in lawsuit

Murchison did not cite the specific Civilian content that drew complaints in his investigation. He suggested in the report that the law school check with LSU’s journalism department for “a good model” of journalism practices that it could enforce on the paper.

The Civilian editors did not respond to College Fix queries about what content allegedly offended students and whether they have felt intimidated or harassed by administrators. Such claims have shown up in litigation against public colleges by school papers in Iowa and Michigan.

‘Barbie’ stereotypes of law students

The paper’s archives do not appear to go back to previous academic years; the oldest content is from August. Its cover story for the first issue of 2015-16 is, fittingly, about LSU’s firing of a professor for using swear words and making sex jokes in class.

barbie-naked.The_Civilian.screenshotBut it also includes a cheeky article laying out “hyberbolic examples of some of the law school stereotypes” that first-year law students will encounter, including “Bleeding Heart Barbie” (white liberal), “Obnoxious Advocate Barbie” (black fashionista), and “Hot Mess GIF Barbie” (naked and drunk).

Though The Civilian has yet to tweet from its two-year-old Twitter account, the paper has two Facebook pages.

The newer one only goes back to August, and it’s embedded on the sidebar of the newspaper’s website.

The older one, last updated a year and a half ago, remains linked from the website’s header, and it offers clues on what might have offended some students and professors in years past.

The most recent post mentions the paper’s April Fools edition and asks students to “offer some feedback – or lodge a complaint.” It also mentions an April Fools edition in 2012. The first issue of the 2013-2014 school year featured “entertaining columns,” according to an August 2013 post.

 

Thanks to everyone who picked up a copy of the April Fools’ issue! We’re glad so many of you liked it. If you’d like…

Posted by The Civilian on Thursday, April 3, 2014

The paper solicited “professor reviews” from students for its March 2012 issue, according to another post, and the review submission page is still live.

lsu-law-professor-reviews.Google_Docs.screenshot

LSU law administrators did not respond to Fix queries on when they might begin the review process for The Civilian or what it might look like.

But they appear to have acted already, appointing a professor to serve as “interim associate dean for student and academic affairs” just a week after the task force report was made public. The law school also posted a “notice of nondiscrimination” Wednesday outlining where students, faculty and staff can file Title IX complaints.

School should validate ‘the experiences of those with marginal identity’

The task force report also recommends updating the Student Code of Professional Conduct to create an “inclusive environment,” by clarifying what type of speech is and is not considered “professional.”

Though the recommendation notes that “First Amendment considerations” apply, referencing Murchison’s report, and that “persons may be legally permitted to engage in certain speech or behavior,” it gets murkier from there.

An updated code should “further an understanding among students” that speech that does not “place the speaker or actor in the best light professionally … can reflect poorly on the Law Center and do damage to the Law Center community.”

The subjective language, with its potential to chill speech, is tempered slightly by the report’s suggestion that “ethics or disciplinary proceedings” be reserved for “instances of pervasive, severely demeaning conduct.”

That is followed, however, by a discussion of microaggressions and the law school’s responsibility to validate “the experiences of those with marginal identity.”

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About the Author
Claire Torstenbo -- Seattle Pacific University

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