History professor battling for First Amendment rights

Justin Ware

Sensitivity to emotions and First Amendment rights to freedom of speech often clash. Now, a small north Minneapolis community college is entering the battle.

Jon Willand, history professor at North Hennepin Community College in Brooklyn Park, has struggled with the college administration over his First Amendment rights since 1990.

Recently, the situation escalated after the administration removed a poster some students found offensive from Willand’s door, prompting the professor to file suit against NHCC.

The poster presents an image of George A. Custer – made famous by the U.S. Army’s American Indian wars of the late 19th century – in a pose similar to the Uncle Sam “I want you for the U.S. Army” World War I recruitment poster.

Students objected to the poster’s wording. It refers to Americans Indians as “militant Sioux.”

NHCC administration banned the poster from anywhere in or near Willand’s office.

“The joke ends where the enforcement begins,” Willand said of the administration’s move.

Willand retrieved the poster, a historic document, from The Old Army Press, a military history resource center located in Colorado Springs, Colo.

“You have to view things in the context of their time,” he said.

Willand said slavery is another example of history, whether it’s offensive or not.

He said in history there is a careful balance between the measure of offensiveness versus truth.

But some said history must be measured carefully.

University bookstore employee Barry Bollinger said the context plays a major part in whether or not the poster is offensive.

“If that was shown next to something as a comparison, then it’s fine,” Bollinger said. “If he’s just trying to say it was cool, then (the poster) is wrong.”

University speech communications senior Christina Rustan said she believes the poster is part of history and therefore should not be ignored.

“It does create awareness,” Rustan said. “It’s history, and we too need to learn about it.”

“I’m from North Dakota and the (Custer-American Indian) tradition is part of our history,” she said. “People forget these things happen.”

Willand said people’s perception and judgment determine offensiveness.

In a statement, Minnesota State Colleges and Universities said NHCC is “committed to the protection of academic freedom within the law and to a policy of non-discrimination in employment and education opportunity. (MnSCU) is determined to foster a learning environment that is respectful.”

Willand said he believes a respectful learning environment is lacking in this case.

“It hurts the climate of opinion,” he said.

The case is the first of its kind in the United States.

“This will be a landmark that will have an impact 300 years from now,” Willand said.

He said the case will lead to more people coming out to defend freedom of speech in academics.

Curt Levey from the Center for Individual Rights, one of the firms representing Willand, is confident in his client’s chance of victory.

“We usually win (in similar cases),” Levey said. “I can only think of one time we’ve lost.”

Justin Ware welcomes comments at [email protected]