Watch Your Libertarian Language

Colleges often have to decide what their rules are about language that offends people. Is a professor’s criticism of affirmative action offensive to black students? Is a gay-rights group’s advocacy offensive to Christian or morally conservative students? And people can debate how to weigh free speech versus a nurturing atmosphere in a particular college.

But Marquette University seems to have reached new heights, or depths, in what it considers offensive. A graduate student there posted on his office door a pithy quotation from humorist Dave Barry:

 “As Americans we must always remember that we all have a common enemy, an enemy that is dangerous, powerful, and relentless. I refer, of course, to the federal government.”

A strong opinion, to be sure. One that I’d bet is shared by many but certainly not all Americans. Apparently Barry’s sentiment is not shared by the chairman of Marquette’s philosophy department, who took it upon himself to take down the quotation and sent a department email declaring it “patently offensive.”

Offensive to whom? Surely not to any of the usual identity groups, ethnic or religious or sexual-orientation or gender or whatever. Nor does it use the four-letter words that might be inappropriate for a public space. Perhaps it’s offensive to employees of the federal government, or to those who have a great deal of respect and admiration for the federal government. But one would think that at a university it falls within the parameters of debate. And while Dave Barry writes more effectively and memorably than most philosophers, his statement still qualifies as humor or political commentary or both.

Marquette is a private university and is thus free under the First Amendment to regulate speech as it chooses. But if libertarian jests are “patently offensive” and subject to censorship at Marquette, it might want to note that in a new paragraph of its academic freedom guidelines and perhaps in the catalog provided to prospective students.