A free-speech advocate is calling on Wake Forest to drop its “witch hunt” investigation of a social-media parody that proposed building a wall between Wake Forest University and nearby Winston-Salem State University.
The First Amendment, after all, protects offensive speech, not just speech with which everyone agrees, argues the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE.
The investigation was announced recently by Wake Forest after someone posted on Instagram a statement about a fictional candidate for student office who “wants to build a wall between wake and winstom-salem state.”
Wake Forest’s president, Nathan Hatch, called the “build a wall” parody “deeply offensive and unacceptable” as well as “harmful.”
“The message disparaged an institution whose values and mission we embrace and with whom we are building an increased collaboration that brings our communities together,” the statement said.
FIRE acknowledged that as a private institution, the university is not bound by the First Amendment. But “free speech and peaceable assembly are basic requirements of a university as a center for free inquiry and the search for knowledge and insight,” FIRE argued.
Given that precedent, the rights group said, the university should drop the issue.
“Wake Forest cannot stand by its commitments to free expression while launching investigations into speech that, while some students might find offensive, remains protected speech,” FIRE said.
“Parodies and jokes may be ‘deeply offensive,’ but they’re within the scope of speech Wake Forest promises to respect,” said Adam Goldstein, program officer of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program. “Wake Forest’s witch hunt to find the anonymous author of a parody meme is a waste of time, a waste of money, and undermines Wake Forest’s aspirations as an academic community.”
The organization dispatched a letter to Wake Forest urging officials to drop the investigation.
FIRE said that while Wake Forest “is free to condemn jokes it finds in poor taste, it cannot mount investigations into student expression that the university purports to protect.”
“What, exactly, does Wake Forest hope to achieve by ‘investigating’ the author of a post that’s deleted with content that nobody thinks is real?” Goldstein asked. “Does the university wish to go online and announce that, after a thorough investigation, it determined the post was totally unfunny?”
The organization said, “We at FIRE are not amused that Wake Forest has violated its promises to its students, and we’ll continue working to ensure the university lives up to its professed promises of free speech.”
FIRE requests a response from the university by next week.
“By initiating and carrying on with this investigation, WFU has contravened the speech and expression promises it makes to its students. If WFU’s commitments to freedom of expression are sincere, it must immediately abandon any investigation into speech it knows to be encompassed by those commitments,” FIRE said.
Already, there’s been damage, the group said.
While no “suspect” has been identified, “the chilling effect precedes the imposition of final, formal discipline, and instead arises from the initiation, announcement, and maintenance of an investigation into speech WFU already knows to be protected.”