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vs. at Indiana University

By Scott Tibbs, September 14, 2003

The Indiana University campus has been abuzz for the past two weeks over a blog by Professor Eric Rasmusen of the Business School. The blog is hosted on Rasmusen's personal Web site at MyPage.IU.edu. After Rasmusen posted "offensive" comments about homosexuality, a few Leftists whined to the Business School Dean and to GLBT Services, and Rasmusen agreed to move his blog to a private server. The next day, Indiana University relented and allowed Professor Rasmusen to move his blog back to the IU server.

In a September 08 letter to the Indiana Daily Student, I wrote, "The University owns their server, and has the right to remove material from it they do not wish to host. The ability to host a personal Web page on the IU server is a privilege, not a right." However, upon thinking about the matter further I do not believe that this is the case. Indiana University is a publicly funded university, drawing a significant portion of its budget from state government. State government also oversees the operations of IU, so in many ways IU is a state institution.

The Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states: "No State shall make or enforce any law which shall... deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." IU allows students, faculty and staff to set up personal home pages on the MyPage server. Can IU force someone who has posted controversial or "offensive" views, but has not broken any law or otherwise violated University policy, to remove his comments? In other words, is it Constitutionally permissible for IU to practice content-based discrimination?

In a word, NO. If Indiana University is going to allow students, faculty and staff to have personal home pages, then it cannot remove those pages if the content is controversial or "offensive". As a government-funded institution, IU must hold everyone to the same standard and apply the same rules equally.

This is not the first time that Indiana University has been guilty of content-based discrimination. In the spring of 2000, the Center for BioEthical Reform wanted to set up its Genocide Awareness Project in the grassy area between Woodburn Hall and Ballentine Hall. But IU refused to allow it, claiming that Dunn Meadow was the "designated free speech zone". However, IU did not have a history of restricting protests, rallies and demonstrations to Dunn Meadow, so CBR filed a lawsuit. A year and a half later, the GAP display was set up behind the Sample Gates.

As Professor Rasmusen himself pointed out, his views are not that unusual, especially outside of academia. He believes that homosexuality is morally wrong, as do millions of other Americans. While not everyone (including some Christian conservatives) share Rasmusen's views on what rights and opportunities should be available to homosexuals, Rasmusen has a right to those views.

Professor Rasmusen's blog is not exactly GodHatesFags.com, a Web site run by Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church. In comparison to the hate preached by the people from Campbellsburg, Indiana who occasionally visit Bloomington to picket on Kirkwood with signs like "God hates fags" and "AIDS cures fags", Rasmusen's views are fairly moderate.

In a letter to the IDS, senior Christina Clark writes: "do not believe that a person can use university server space for hateful rants that do nothing to contribute to scholarship, learning and a free exchange of ideas." Of course, the blog did contribute to the free exchange of ideas, as there has been a dialogue about the content of the blog in the IDS and Herald-Times, in addition to various Web forums.

The same day, senior Aja Romano writes "No professor at a reputable business school should be allowed to do what Rasmusen has done and remain in a position of authority." What, exactly, has Rasmusen "done"? Express an opinion contrary to one shared by an alleged majority on this campus? So long as Rasmusen is simply expressing his views, and not using his position to deny a student educational opportunities, what Rasmusen writes on his blog should be of no relevance to his position as a professor. Rasmusen is not behaving like Cathy Crosson, a professor in the School of Law who went on a profanity-laced tirade against an official with the Indiana Department of Transportation (in full view of TV cameras) at a public hearing regarding the extension of Interstate 69.

Some have suggested that Rasmusen be required to put a disclaimer on his Web site to make it clear his views are not the views of the school. Of course, the fact that the page is stored on the mypage.iu.edu server, should make that clear.

The fundamental problem with censorship is that once a precedent has been established that something can be censored, other forms of speech can also be censored. IU senior Nicholas Blesch's September 11 letter to the IDS exposed the hypocrisy of Charlie Nelms, the vice president for student development and diversity. Nelms has in the past argued that ideas he finds "offensive" be censored by the student newspaper, but came out in favor of Rasmusen's free speech rights. If "offensive" viewpoints may be suppressed, who decides which viewpoints may be aired and which may not? Should a committee be established to regulate what speech is and is not allowed on this campus?

Whether Leftists like it or not, homosexual behavior is not in the same class as race, gender or other immutable characteristics. Socially conservative views on sexual morality are prevalent in American culture. Seeking to silence dissent on this matter does nothing to convince social conservatives that their views are "wrong." Instead, it breeds resentment and may actually contribute to extremism.

IU is a public university, a prominent research institution, and a place for all kinds of views to be expressed. Everyone here, from freshmen to professors, are adults and should be able to handle speech and views they find disagreeable, wrong, or "offensive". Censorship of views one finds "offensive" is an easy way to avoid participating in productive discourse. It is also the coward's way out.