Monday, November 29, 2004

Homecoming, History, and Hysteria

The New York Times has published a story about colleges, including Saint Cloud State University, that allow women to run for homecoming king and vice versa. King Banaian of SCSU Scholars weblog has said about all that needs to be said about the controversy (before moving on to other topics like unrest in the Ukraine). After the male homecoming "queen" reportedly received death threats, the university administration requested that his name and likeness be removed from the weblog.

SCSU Scholars made the right decision in complying with the administration request, although they could have had some fun with it by obscuring the identity with a "blue dot" or pixelization. There is no indication that the action by the weblog was anything other than voluntary.

What is troubling, however, is the university administration's apparent linkage between legitimate criticism of the homecoming stunt and the threats. The name and likeness of the student were already widely publicized, just not in a critical way. The idea that intelligent criticism on a weblog could turn a law-abiding citizen into a cowardly criminal who makes death threats is preposterous.

This is reminiscent of a case ten years ago at the University of Minnesota, Duluth. The UMD history club wanted to highlight the specialties of the history faculty in a photographic display. One of the pictures featured an American/military history professor wearing a coonskin cap and holding a pistol. Another picture featured a professor wearing a cardboard laurel wreath and carrying a roman short sword. Because of earlier, unrelated death threats against a female professor elsewhere on campus, the chancellor ordered the photographs removed. Student and faculty members of the history club sued and eventually won a substantial settlement. In that case, as in the current controversy, it was wrong to imply that legitimate First Amendment activity is responsible for death threats.

The lawyers for the plaintiffs in the UMD case? Scott Johnson and John Hinderaker of Powerline.

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