The football rivalry between DePauw University and Wabash College usually comes with all the trimmings–a traveling trophy, angry and intoxicated fans and vulgar T-shirts. This year’s shirts read “You’ve had our Dick” on the front and “Now here’s our Seaman” on the back, a reference to two conveniently named DePauw stars, former quarterback Spud Dick and current quarterback Drew Seaman.
Many objected to the shirts as homophobic, or simply as just too raunchy. After protests, the administration decided not to sell the Dick-Seaman shirts, opting to buy all 500 from the designer (who said he was concerned about “backlash”) and approving plans to sew them into–of all things–a love quilt. This isn’t exactly censorship but it’s close enough to worry those concerned about the free speech rights of students.
A debate arose over the student newspaper’s charge that the shirts amounted to “malicious hate speech” targeting homosexuals. Apparently not. The student designer’s said he had no intention of offending anyone (except Wabash). Students ascribing homophobic intent to the message seem to have an incredibly low opinion of their peers and a high opinion of their own telepathy. The administration accepted the view that intent isn’t as important as perception, rejecting the idea that jokes about penises could be anything but homophobic.
Look what happened here: The shirts were seen as offensive and hurtful when intended to heckle Wabash, but now that they are in the hands of United DePauw, sponsors of the quilt, they are seen as a message of love the community needs. Yes, the same words can be read to mean different things, but the point is that community values should be established by the community, not by its governance. A precedent has been set here. All it takes to enforce silence is enough emails complaining to the dean. Who will start the next uproar at the expense of their peers’ freedom of expression?