Speaking With Both Lips, What Vulvas Have to do with Free Speech

By: Connor Cummiskey

The Ripon College Feminists made waves recently by posting large, brightly colored drawings of vulvas in residence halls to advertise their One Big Sexy Blowout event. The controversial posters sparked a discussion of free speech on campus after the feminists were told to remove them by residential life staff.

For two weeks the feminists used less controversial posters to advertise their event. Student response to these posters was lacking, so they went ahead with a more controversial option.

“We wanted to do another poster campaign that would elicit a response. Our vice president, Rose Hogmire, came up with this idea of drawing giant vulvas,” says club president Rachel Steiner. “The week before the event, we went and hung them up in the residence halls because we wanted to avoid admissions tours.” The vulva posters did, however, appear on parts of the admission tour route. Steiner insists this was unintentional.

Soon, students began to notice, and the club saw the response they had elicited, though not precisely the one they were hoping to receive.

According to Director of Residence Life Jessica Joanis, over 20 students lodged complaints about the posters with Residence Life staff claiming they were offended by the depiction of female genitalia.

Director of Multicultural Affairs Kyonna Withers informed the feminists on Nov. 11 that Residence Life asked for the posters to be removed.

The College Days obtained a copy of an email sent from Joanis to feminist advisor Molly Margaretten a day later, explaining the situation and suggesting that members of the group were not in agreement with Residence Life’s decision to remove the posters. In this email, dated Nov. 12, Joanis asks Margaretten for direction on how to proceed.

“A full 24-hour period after the posters were put up (so at night) I got a message from Kyonna Withers saying that we had been told the posters had to come down,” says Steiner. “The next day, already, posters had been destroyed or taken down and we received more information that there was an R.A. in Johnson that had reported that residents were uncomfortable with the posters and wanted them removed.”

After being told to remove the posters, the feminist club decided to respond by placing large black squares of paper with the information of their event and the word ‘censored’ written on it over the vulva posters.

“We wanted to make a statement in rejection of them being taken down,” says Steiner. “So, we made more to replace the ones that had been taken down and destroyed and we decided as a protest to not take them down but make them almost invisible. And by putting ‘censored’ over them also express that we felt that we were being censored by the college.”

According to Joanis, it is not Residence Life’s decision as to what can be hung in a residence hall and what cannot. They are only trying to provide a place where students can feel safe and at home by following the campus’ posting policy.

The campus’ posting policy is included in the Student Handbook. It states “Ripon College provides spaces around campus for written communication by College community members. Postings must be in good taste and conform to standards Ripon College sets as an academic institution.”

“Currently, the official campus posting policy says that postings need to be ‘in good taste’ and reflect the college’s ideals,” explains Steiner. “Of course, where the club is at is that [the policy] is so vague, because we would argue that an abstractly drawn vulva is in good taste.”

For an outside evaluation of the speech codes that are in force on our campus, Lauren Hince (a member of the College Days and of the feminist club) requested a review of the policies by the Foundation for Individual Right in Education (FIRE).

What they found was interesting. The posting policy that this campus has is what FIRE has flagged as red light, meaning that the policy substantially restricts students’ right to free speech. The problem revolves around the requirement that postings be “in good taste.”

“This requirement is problematic for several reasons, not the least of which is that it is unclear what the college considers to be in ‘good taste,’”  says Senior Program Officer, Individual Rights Education Program, Collin Crossman. “That is a subjective matter and open to interpretation, meaning that students may find themselves in trouble for constitutionally protected expression simply because it offends the sensibilities of a particular administrator or a fellow student. That is at odds with the First Amendment’s guarantees, which protect most, if not almost all, speech that someone may subjectively deem to be lacking in good taste.”

Dean of Students Christopher Ogle points out that policies like Ripon’s “in good taste” and the more recent guidelines emailed to students about using “offensive or inappropriate information” are not uncommon on college campuses.

“This wording was modeled after staff members explored wording at other similar colleges,” Dean Ogle explains. “Ultimately, regardless of the wording, someone is required to make a judgment.”

With One Big Sexy Blowout in the rearview mirror, it seems that the blowback from its advertising will continue to provoke a discussion of free speech here at Ripon.