Stephen Colbert's joke and the limitations of Twitter

Much worse than the problems inherent in Twitter use, to me, is what this controversy demonstrates about many people’s inability to digest satire and think critically about what it is saying. To cite one of the responses quoted above, since when has there been “a line between satire [and] offense”? Should we consider the fact that satire has historically been used precisely to offend, in order to make a larger point and lead the listener to think critically about some element of the subject of the satire? Consider the Supreme Court’s famous decision in Hustler Magazine v. Falwell (1988), in which the Court held that the First Amendment protected a satirical advertisement suggesting that the Reverend Jerry Falwell lost his virginity to his own mother in an outhouse. I would love to see someone try to explain to the Justices who handed down that decision that there exists a line separating satire from offense.

Further, if we are going to entertain the idea that Colbert’s comment is somehow “dangerous,” I would submit that the inability to think critically and distinguish between satire and something that is truly “oppressive” is extremely dangerous — at least, as far as our future as a nation and a free society is concerned.

The reason this controversy hits home for me is that at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE, where I work), we have seen too many examples of university students and faculty members facing censorship or disciplinary action for engaging in protected satire and parody. At Syracuse University, a law student faced a chilling, months-long investigation over his alleged role in an anonymous, satirical blog poking fun at life in law school, despite the fact that the blog clearly marked itself as not conveying real news, and the fact that life in law school provides plenty of fodder for such humor. At the University of Wisconsin-Stout, a professor who found his office door posting taken down put up a second poster satirizing the university’s heavy-handed action in hilarious fashion, only to see the university double down on its censorship. The university’s absurd response even included calling in the “threat assessment team” — again, all over a poster on the professor’s office door.