The LSU Student Union sits in central campus on Monday, March 20, 2023, on Highland Road in Baton Rouge, La. (Matthew Perschall for Louisiana Illuminator)
A national free speech organization has sent a letter to LSU President William F. Tate that demands the university undo its termination of a graduate assistant who left a vulgar voicemail for a state senator.
In a letter sent Friday, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), a national First Amendment advocacy organization known for its support of conservatives on college campuses, argued LSU had violated the constitutional rights of Marcus Venable, a grad assistant in LSU’s sociology department. He left a phone message for Sen. Mike Fesi, R-Houma, after Fesi gave a speech Tuesday in support of a ban on gender-affirming healthcare for transgender youth.
“LSU cannot punish Venable for his protected political speech,” Ida Namazi, FIRE’s campus rights advocacy program officer, wrote in the letter. “It accordingly must promptly correct its errors and the public record, especially if it wishes to avoid the continued chilling of strident political advocacy on its campus.”
Venable’s message created a national controversy for LSU after conservative commentator Greg Price shared the message to his nearly 300,000 Twitter followers. The tweet was shared by national conservative figures, including the far-right account Libs of TikTok and Republicans in the Louisiana Legislature who called on LSU to dismiss Venable.
Venable was incorrectly identified as an LSU professor by Price. He is actually a graduate assistant, which is a student pursuing an advanced degree who takes on duties such as teaching freshman courses or conducting research.
Within 24 hours of Price’s tweet, LSU announced Venable would be terminated from his teaching duties, but be allowed to finish his studies at the university.
“While the message may have seemed vituperative or deeply offensive to some, it does not fall into any category of speech unprotected by the First Amendment, which bars LSU from investigating or punishing Venable for his protest voiced to a public official,” Namazi wrote in the letter, which can be read in full below.
Venable’s message, while vulgar, was hyperbolic, and protected by the First Amendment, Namazi added.
“As the Supreme Court confirmed just weeks ago, punishment for true threats by a government actor requires that the speaker consciously disregard a substantial risk that their speech would place another in fear of serious physical harm,” Namazi wrote. “Here, Venable’s vitriol looking forward to Senator Fesi’s demise, including even his statement that “we’ll put your f—ing ass in the ground,” is in context clear political hyperbole.
“While it may express desire to see Fesi out of office, it cannot be fairly read as a promise to commit actual violence against him,” Namazi added.
In response to request for comment, Venable sent an email with a quote — “The duty of the strong is to protect the weak.” — and attributed it to Joseph Venable, his grandfather.
The letter, which calls on LSU to respond by July 28, was also sent to Aaron Marcelle, commander of Troop A of the Louisiana State Police, and Terrebonne Parish Sheriff Timothy Soignet, who are investigating the voicemail. The voicemail was reported to law enforcement by Fesi, who represents part of Terrebonne Parish.
A spokesperson for LSU has not responded to a request for comment.
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