A free-speech debate has erupted at Cleveland State University after the school’s lukewarm response to the posting of a homophobic flier that encourages lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer students to commit suicide.
(Warning: This article contains disturbing content.)
The flier was posted last week on a billboard in CSU’s main classroom building, according to Cleveland’s Plain Dealer newspaper. It reportedly appeared the same day that the university’s first LGBTQ center opened its doors.
The flier shows the silhouette of a man hanging from a noose, statistics on LGBTQ suicides, and the words “Follow Your Fellow FAGGOTS.”
At the bottom of the poster, the words “Fascist Solutions” were printed. No individual or group has claimed responsibility. A similar flier was spotted in Houston earlier this year.
University officials said they removed the poster as soon as they were alerted to it, and said they were investigating its source.
The school’s reasoning for taking down the flier, however, has provoked widespread criticism on CSU’s campus and beyond.
William Dube, university director of communications and media relations, told WOIO-TV that the flier had been removed because “proper posting procedure was not followed.”
“Prior approval needs to be provided before posters are added to that billboard,” Dube said.
If the flier had been put up following the correct protocol, it would not have been taken down, Dube told The Plain Dealer. “According to the legal framework related to free speech it would have been allowed,” he said.
In a letter to the school community on Monday, university President Ronald Berkman appeared to defend the flier, saying the school would “continue to protect free speech.”
Berkman wrote that while CSU was “fully committed to campus community that respects all individuals,” the school was also “committed to upholding the First Amendment, even with regard to controversial issues where opinion is divided,” according to BuzzFeed.
The university’s initial response to the flier was met with harsh criticism.
Facing widespread condemnation, Berkman issued another statement on Tuesday expressing “personal outrage” over the poster. He said the school would hold an open meeting the following day to address “concerns.”
But Berkman reiterated his remarks about the First Amendment, saying the “current legal framework regarding free speech makes it difficult to prevent these messages from being disseminated.”
According to an earlier analysis by Quartz of constitutional protections surrounding hate speech, “direct threats aren’t protected by the First Amendment. But to count as a threat, speech has to incite ‘imminent lawless action.’”
Emotions reportedly ran high at the Wednesday meeting.
“A lot of us feel unsafe with how you handled the situation, it could have been handled a lot better,” one student attendee told Berkman, according to WEWS-TV.
Others spoke of how they’d personally attempted suicide, or had LGBTQ friends who’d taken their life or been murdered.
Berkman reportedly apologized to the student body and asked those gathered to “constructively tell us what we can do given the moment that we live in.”
One student responded that Berkman, as school president, “should have some solutions on how to help your own student body.”
According to Out magazine, some of the statistics shown on the inflammatory flier were “actually lower than the most recent LGBTQ suicide rates.” A 2014 study found that 46 percent of transgender men and 42 percent of transgender women in the United States had attempted suicide, compared with 4.6 percent of the overall U.S. population. In a 2011 study, 44 percent of bisexual youth reported thinking about suicide at least once in the previous 30 days.
A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report last year concluded that queer teens are four times more likely to commit suicide than their straight peers.
If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HELLO to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.