Critical ThinkingHigher EducationScience

The One Where I Might Be Harshing Free Speech

Hello, School of Doubt! I’m very happy to participate in this project. I’m a tenured associate professor of English at a baccalaureate liberal arts college. My Ph.D. specialization area was British Romantics, but everyone is a generalist where I work because the school is very small, meaning I can teach anything from freshman composition to Gothic novels to video gaming theory. I have a husband and a teenage son, two cats, and two rescued Yorkshire Terriers. I self-identify as skeptic, atheist, feminist, humanist, posthumanist, vegetarian, liberal, and Diet Coke enthusiast. 

Some disclaiming: I love free speech as much as the next liberal college professor. I teach literature, which would be nigh impossible without the brave speech acts of poets who didn’t give a shit for how their work would be vilified or censured. I’m a feminist, and we all know how crucial speech is to civil rights progress, and how hegemony conserves its power by silencing dissident voices. So this post serves as my confession, and I humbly invite you to assign penance, for I, DrShell, have knowingly and purposefully interfered with free speech on my campus: I took down a flyer advertising iridology and ear candling services to my students.

Do I have the right to do this? I honestly don’t know. At one time, the school claimed a campus-wide flyer posting policy that involved signatures and permissions. (I know this only because of the uproar that resulted when those rules were introduced by a new dean, with students and faculty protesting the limiting of, you guessed it, free speech.) The flyer in question did not display any Stamp of Official Permission. That dean is long gone, though, and I can’t assert that this policy persists and, since confession is a genre of disclosure (or at least its reasonable counterfeit), I will admit that I don’t care much about stamps of permission. I did not remove the flyer because it lacked a stamp; I removed it because it was selling quackery to my students. My people. People who, in the words of Judge Judy, “are not fully cooked,” who often lack the education and savvy needed to see through pseudoscientific language. I couldn’t stand the thought of abandoning them to the machinations of an iridologist–“certified” though she may be.

At first, I pulled down the flyer so that I could take it to my office and use it in a Facebook post. The college where I teach serves fewer than 900 students, all undergraduates, so we get quite chummy with them; I have dozens of students as Facebook friends, many of whom I have not had in a class. My plan was to put the flyer back after posting a photo accompanied by the following:

Posted on campus. Please educate yourself about these pseudoscientific practices and ideas before paying someone for them. Ear candling is illegal in some countries because burns and fires have resulted from it–not to mention the fact it does not and cannot do what it claims. Iridology probably won’t hurt anything but your wallet, unless of course there is something medically wrong with you and you eschew medical treatment in favor of whatever “supplements” the friendly iridologist happily sells you.

Ear candling:

Due diligence, yes? Using my free speech to interrogate someone else’s freely spoken free speech and yay, freedom. And speech. It could have stopped there. And yet…I walked back out of my office, flyer in hand, and ran into a couple of colleagues, to whom I showed the offending document. They had never heard of iridology. When I explained it, one friend responded immediately, “So that would be bullshit, right?” She’s very smart, though, with a Ph.D. in political science. Would our students know? Would they fall for the smiley face-festooned assurances or the ethos of a “certified” professional? Would they give this quack their book money so she could peer into their eyes and sell them useless supplements? I began to lose confidence in my Facebook powers.

So I told them, my political science friend and the other, a sociologist, that I was on my way to replace the flyer. Should I follow through? Was I obligated? The political scientist: “I would say no.” The sociologist: “I think you forgot to put it back.” I returned to my office and threw the thing in the trash.

Was that the right thing to do? If we leave aside the issue of whether or not stamped permissions are required for on-campus leafletting, the woman has a right to advertise her legal services in a public forum. However, I happen to know that iridology is a fraudulent methodology, and I feel compelled to protect my charges from such. To widen the scope a bit, I’m asking if teachers must abide by the absurd cultural imperative to show “tolerance” for alternative modalities, even when we know better, even when we’re trying to shield students. I do feel bad about what I did; I wouldn’t want a judge-y stranger messing with my posted flyers. At the same time, I would do it again.




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DrShell is an Associate Professor of English at a small liberal arts college. She teaches world literature, composition, popular culture, and speculative fiction and serves as faculty sponsor for the Secular Student Alliance. DrShell lives in tame suburbia with her husband and son and a pack of rescued pets, where she spends a lot of time running, taking Body Pump classes, and thinking about getting another tattoo.


  1. March 2, 2013 at 1:59 pm —

    For me, it depends on if the flyer is for an obviously campus-related activity or club. If it is, I generally leave it alone. If it’s not student-related, or it’s soliciting, then I pull it.

    The only time I had to really exercise willpower was when Lorraine Warren came to my campus to speak about the Amityville haunting. I’m a bad man. I took a flyer or two down…I might have encouraged students to take them down… But there were lots. However, one of my students wrote a full-page editorial in the student paper before Warren showed up criticizing the student events board for using student fees to pay for Warren’s presentation. I couldn’t have been prouder.

    For a while, the student radio station on my campus had a paranormal show, and its flyers were everywhere. They were so ridiculous, I never had the heart to take them down. “Are each of us being followed by a doppelganger?” – that kind of stuff.

    • March 2, 2013 at 3:05 pm —

      Ha! I have to admit I have a fondness for some of that Art Bell stuff. And thanks for making me feel better about being a flyer thief.

  2. Nema Tode
    March 3, 2013 at 3:04 am —

    I think it was OK to take down the flyer. I don’t think businesses have a free-speech right to market themselves everywhere.
    At an adult-ed school I censored a flyer that listed a homeopathy clinic alongside some free regular medical clinics. A well-meaning teacher had made the flyer for the ESL students who didn’t have health insurance. I thought they wouldn’t even know what a homeopathy clinic really was, and I wanted to protect them from loosing money and missing out on the real health care they needed, so I put an X through the homeopathy clinic info and wrote “this is not a medical clinic.”

  3. Damned Skeptic
    March 4, 2013 at 3:58 am —

    Since you think the iridologist has a legal right to advertise her services, it seems safe to assume that you had no legal right to remove the flyer, so when you ask if you have the right to do this I presume you mean a moral right. As you will soon see, I am not a moral philosopher, but I think the question is what is the a moral principle which permits you to suppress the iridologist’s speech? In this case you feel that at least some of your students lack the education and savvy needed to see that iridology is pseudo-scientific quackery, and despite the fact that in the past students have opposed placing restrictions on flyer posting, you felt compelled to remove the flyer in order to protect them from financial loss. Of course your action also affects the staff and faculty, but perhaps we should just view them as paternalistic collateral damage.

    Caring about the students is great, but I don’t think it justifies the paternalism of your actions especially in light of the apparent desire by the students not to have flyers regulated. And in reality it’s a paternalism unlikely to have any real effect on students lives. Nonsense is all around and even coming to this site risks exposing them to pseudo-science like the ad for a three minute Chakra healing test that I encountered on the home page last night.

    In the comments Jack99 promotes altering advertising and has a link to buga-up which is a group that promotes altering billboards, but here’s a link to someone who is not so pleased with billboard modification. On that page the writer calls it vandalism and not a decent or effective way to communicate. The billboard that was altered was put up by Freedom from Religion Foundation and the blog is called the Friendly Atheist.

    • March 4, 2013 at 4:13 am —

      I don’t know that I’d go so far as to say Dr Shell had “no legal right” to remove the flyer. It was, after all, a public billboard, and presumably sometimes people have to take things down in order to put up new flyers or ads. Personally, though, I always try to maintain a philosophy of countering speech with speech, especially when it provides the opportunity to educate. In Dr Shell’s position I probably would have gone through with the original plan in hope that a few students would do the research, inform themselves, and possibly even spread the right info when they had the chance.

      Of course, this does require a bit more time and effort than one might have the luxury of expending on a given day…

      • Damned Skeptic
        March 4, 2013 at 6:59 am —

        That was clumsy writing by me. I should have either left out the legal right bit or made it clear that the actual status of the flyer was put aside by Dr Shell. I was just trying to make the point that since Dr Shell was not asserting authority to remove the flyer we were discussing a moral right not a legal one.

  4. March 4, 2013 at 1:14 pm —

    Yep, this is pretty much how it sounded in my head. You’re right that it probably didn’t make much difference either way, as most of my students can’t afford quack therapies. I did make the post to Facebook hoping it would prompt someone to do a little research; no one responded with HOW DARE YOU, MADAM, but that means little.

    I will say that I don’t support billboard alteration. That feels like a different issue to me, with more legal implications. Billboards are expensive, and the way I understand them, when you pay for that space it belongs to you for the contracted amount of time. In that case, altering one would be vandalism, unequivocally. Photocopied flyers on a college campus are different; the “contract” for the use of the space is different, as is the sphere of access. As Dan points out, people move and remove flyers all the time–or just staple over them–and it doesn’t cost anything to post them (beyond what you might pay for copying, obvs). I also wouldn’t approve of altering a flyer in a less productive way than what Nema Tode describes, like drawing genitalia or scrawling BULLSHIT on it, though I admit that the flyer creator might not appreciate the subtleties of the difference.

    Last week I noticed that one of our students has a flyer up advertising her services as a Tarot reader, for “fun and entertainment.” I know her, as do most people on campus, and I bet her readings are pretty entertaining. I’m not worried about that–students will know what they’re getting into with her, and I doubt she’s charging much. On the other hand, a notorious local “crisis pregnancy” center often blankets our campus with flyers for their “services,” and I take those down every time I see them.

    • March 4, 2013 at 8:17 pm —

      I myself used to give the occasional tarot reading for “fun and entertainment,” or rather my case to screw with friends by hot reading them (how did you ever know that? I only told X, Y, and Z in total confidence!).

    • Otoki
      March 5, 2013 at 6:47 pm —

      I actually think crisis pregnancy center ads are the best candidates for alteration with a message that indicates that it’s a pro-life organizations masquerading as a medical clinic.

  5. Olivia
    March 4, 2013 at 4:02 pm —

    I think your students would have been better served if you had kept it up and included another flyer or wrote on it to ask your students to educate themselves. Suppressing the advertising doesn’t end the quackery. What will end it is if this person doesn’t get any customers, and the only way to ensure that is by educating your students. In addition, college students generally have some skeptical thinking skills available (that’s part of how they got into college, ya know?), so if you challenged them to explore, they likely would. I don’t think it protects anyone to keep information away from them, even if it’s the information that bad and stupid things exist. Acknowledging those bad and stupid things and then expanding the conversation is the best way to educate.

  6. Jack99
    March 4, 2013 at 9:12 pm —

    I get the feeling from the responses here and those to @Andiis on the other thread I linked to above that advertising really is a sacred cow in the USA. First up, I am not advocating wholesale alteration of advertising for any frivolous purpose but I think it was justified in the case of cigarette advertising at the time and I think it would have been justified in opposing antivaccination advertising two years ago.. In both cases, there were lives at stake. Yes, there were legal consequences to be faced and yes, the rights of the advertisers were infringed. I would say that the latter was a good thing, because this was propaganda warfare after all.

    I realise that all this is a different issue to campus posters but the same principle applies. Really the point I was trying to make is that modification is more effective than removal, The cleverer the alteration, the more effective. Less is more. Add a word or alter a letter to make your point. The principles of graffiti 101 have not changed since Romani Ite Domum!

    • Jack99
      March 4, 2013 at 9:25 pm —

      “Now write it out 100 times!”

  7. March 5, 2013 at 1:11 am —

    Jack99, I think you may be noting an American tendency that extends beyond advertising: we are pretty territorial and do not condone touching other people’s stuff. It always amazes me when I’m in the UK, for example, and I can climb over a stile or go through a gate and walk through someone’s land. We don’t do that here, at least nowhere I’ve ever lived. In fact, many states have laws saying if someone is trespassing on your property you can shoot them first and ask questions later.

    • Jack99
      March 5, 2013 at 11:50 pm —

      And yet, you felt justified in removing the poster entirely, which is censorship, rather than altering or adding a comment to it, which is consistent with freedom of speech? Not that I disapprove of that at all, good for you, as far as it goes.
      Look, I recall a similar thing when I was at Uni in the 70s, where a Young Christian Fellowship guy put up a poster about Jesus, and then one of our more true believer atheist professors added the comment “Probably responsible for more deaths than Hitler”. The next day the YCF guy added something like “He preached love – ain’t his fault if folks won’t listen ra ra”. And so on back and forth. Every day people walked past to see if there were new comments. It was funny, it was interesting, it was the sort of stuff that campus life was all about.

    • Damned Skeptic
      March 6, 2013 at 12:30 am —

      Both Jack99’s sacred cow and your territorial comment strike me as dismissive of opposing viewpoints, and I doubt your claim that “…many states have laws saying if someone is trespassing on your property you can shoot them first and ask questions later.” I found a ProPublica article ( on self defense laws with links to self defense laws in 24 states and in my opinion none of those states has a shoot first and ask questions later law. Admittedly what I found could be incorrect or my interpretation faulty. Plus, that still leaves 26 states, so I’d be interested in seeing your evidence for that claim.

      • March 6, 2013 at 12:45 am —

        I can’t speak for Jack, but I am sorry if I came across as dismissive; it wasn’t my intention. I was just commenting on a cultural difference that I have always found intriguing. I am from Texas and I know the laws there allow deadly force for protection of property; self defense laws are different to property /trespassing laws. I believe Louisiana and Tennessee have laws similar to the one in Texas as well. It was a flippant comment, really, not one I was intending to make any Grand Point with. Just musing.

        • March 6, 2013 at 12:48 am —

          Here are the relevant gun laws in Texas, if you’re interested: I think it’s completely barbaric, myself, but it’s home.

          • Damned Skeptic
            March 6, 2013 at 7:40 pm

            Dr. Shell, after reading the Texas statutes you linked to I went back to the 24 states to get a sense of how Texas compared to them. Keeping in mind that to call it research would be an insult to the word, my impression was that there are many similarities among these states, but some states permit lethal force to protect property and some don’t with Texas standing out in allowing deadly force to protect property. Although I only noticed it a few times, some states, including Texas, have a limited presumption that someone breaking into an occupied vehicle or home is intent on violence thus giving a person the right to use deadly force. So shooting first does seem to be legally justified in some circumstances.

          • March 7, 2013 at 1:52 pm

            Interesting! (Ah, Texas. Always a trendsetter.)

      • Jack99
        March 6, 2013 at 1:17 am —

        I too am sorry that “sacred cow” was provocative – I just couldn’t think of a better way to put it. I really wanted to know if there was a deep cultural difference there. That sort of thing fascinates me too.

  8. Otoki
    March 5, 2013 at 6:49 pm —

    I also see a difference between vandalizing paid-for billboards and vandalizing fliers for your business that you’ve plastered over a college campus for free (minus the minimal cost of paper and ink).

  9. Moniqa Aylin
    March 5, 2013 at 11:56 pm —

    When you post a flier for free in a public space, there is no reasonable expectation of it staying up or not being modified. I don’t see how what you did could have been wrong. What are you taking away from the poster that was guaranteed them? The poster had her opportunity to put it there and has not earned/does not deserve anything more than that, such as by paying for a space. Are you somehow depriving your students by taking it down? You wouldn’t have done it if you thought so. Prohibiting posting is a limit on free speech; cleaning up trash in the halls isn’t. Maybe your actions weren’t very nice to the quack, but I don’t believe you have a moral obligation to be unfailingly nice to everyone in the world.

  10. Jack99
    March 6, 2013 at 12:01 am —

    I’ve been thinking about how to fix that atheist poster linked by Damned Skeptic.
    By the rules of graffiti 101, erasure is not an option.
    I would turn it into a black Viking helmet, perhaps with a logo on the front in small white print, such as a stylised lithium atom with nucleus and electrons – or the URL of the website.
    Maybe even give him a light sabre!

  11. March 6, 2013 at 12:11 am —

    I’m not sure I did feel justified, but I did it anyway, so yeah, point taken. 🙂
    Thanks, Moniqa!

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