LSU’s Memorial Tower displays the time on Monday, March 20, 2023, on Tower Drive in Baton Rouge, La.
After an LSU graduate assistant left a vulgar voicemail in July for a state senator who supported a gender-affirming care ban, the university relieved him of his teaching duties, prompting outrage from free speech advocates. But after the dust has settled, nobody is pleased with the outcome.
The student, Marcus Venable, called Sen. Mike Fesi, R-Houma, after the lawmaker gave a floor speech in favor of overriding the governor’s veto of a ban on gender-affirming care for trans youth. In the message, Venable told Fesi he “can’t wait to read your name in the f—–g obituaries” and called him a “big fat-headed motherf—er.”
Within hours, the university announced Venable would be removed from the classroom as an instructor but allowed to remain enrolled at the university. Venable has maintained his position as a graduate assistant but now performs research duties in the sociology department.
“As a university, we foster open and respectful dialogue. Like everyone, graduate students with teaching assignments have the right to express their opinions, but this profanity-filled, threatening call crossed the line,” LSU spokesperson Abbi Rocha Laymoun said in a statement to the Illuminator. “This does not exhibit the character we expect of someone given the privilege of teaching as part of their graduate assistantship. The student will be allowed to continue their studies but will not be extended the opportunity to teach in the future.”
The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), a national First Amendment advocacy organization known for its support of conservatives on college campuses, sent two letters to the university, arguing LSU had violated Venable’s constitutional rights.
But over a month later, LSU has not responded to FIRE’s letters and neither Venable nor Fesi are happy with how the situation has been handled.
Fesi believes LSU didn’t go far enough.
“I thought he should have been eliminated to go to the school totally,” Fesi said in an interview.
In Venable’s view, LSU crossed the line by labeling his message as “threatening.” The Louisiana State Police investigated the call and determined no crime was committed.
Venable said he doesn’t think he threatened Fesi or committed a crime.
“I believe some of it was misconstrued, in particular the quote about ‘when we put your ass into the ground,’” Venable said in an interview. “In that instance, I was speaking more of ‘we’ as a society. I believe the old expression is: ‘Society advances one funeral at a time.’”
While Venable said he could have worded his concerns better, he stands by what he said, even though it has resulted in him receiving violent threats, several of which he shared with the Illuminator. Venable said his primary regret is that his actions have reflected poorly on the transgender community, which was the exact opposite of his intention.
By referring to the voicemail as a threat, Venable said he believes the university has damaged his career prospects after he completes his Ph.D. He has reached out to the administration about the matter but hasn’t received a response, he said.
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Bob Mann, a mass communication professor and and LSU Faculty Senate member, believes the university shouldn’t have gotten involved.
“He was expressing a strong political opinion about a public issue, not representing the university,” Mann said. “What interest does the university have in that, right? Zero.”
Mann is concerned that the way the university responded is indicative of a broader problem that could impact the rest of the faculty as higher education continues to be politicized by conservatives.
“I think that has a chilling effect, and I think it was part of performing for the next governor,” Mann said. “I think they’re trying to say to… potential Governor Landry, ‘We’re gonna police faculty speech.’”
Landry, the current frontrunner in this fall’s gubernatorial election, has taken an interest in faculty speech, previously calling on LSU to discipline Mann for criticizing one of his deputies after her appearance at a Faculty Senate meeting to speak in opposition to a resolution regarding the COVID-19 vaccine.
Inessa Bazayev, LSU’s Faculty Senate president, was not as concerned about the implications for the rest of the faculty but called the university’s response concerning, especially as the timing coincides with the faculty’s bid to have the American Association of University Professors’ two censures against the university lifted. The association, the primary professional organization concerned with academic freedom on university campuses, issues censures only in extreme circumstances and requires a rigorous process to have them removed. The censures can be viewed as a black mark for the university and make recruiting new faculty more difficult.
Bazayev also said it was regrettable the voicemail was made public.
Venable speculates it was put out there to discourage others from speaking out.
“The whole point of putting my information public was to do a character assassination and to threaten and intimidate other people into silence,” Venable said.
Fesi said it was not his call to release the message to conservative activist Greg Price, who shared the audio to his over 300,000 Twitter followers, causing it to go viral. Fesi said he was advised to share the clip with several people so he could get advice on what should be done about the incident, although he said he could not recall who he sent it to.
He said he had no idea it would end up on social media.
But with little hope of LSU reversing course, Venable said he is considering his next steps.
FIRE has advised him not to speak out or seek further legal action, Venable said, unless LSU takes further action against him. A spokesperson for FIRE denies giving Venable this advice.
But Venable said he is contemplating getting legal advice.
“I feel that LSU is potentially damaging my reputation by the press release that they continue to leave out there,” he said.
Venable hopes to find a resolution with the university so he can return to the classroom, which he said is why he came to LSU in the first place.
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