- The Washington Times - Friday, April 12, 2002

For 15 years, Patrick Washburn has displayed a Reconstruction-era rifle on the wall of his office at Ohio University (OU). The firearm, a family heirloom passed down from his great-grandfather, seemed to be an appropriate antique for Mr. Washburn to hang there: Mr. Washburn is a journalism professor specializing in the history of wartime press.

But now, he's the one doing battle with Ohio University administrators. Although Mr. Washburn is one of the nation's foremost media historians and is the incoming president of the American Journalism Historians Association, campus bureaucrats apparently feared he might dust off the relic and shoot up the campus. So on Jan. 25, they dispatched campus police to Mr. Washburn's office and ordered him to remove the 1878 Springfield rifle.

Mr. Washburn was stunned by what he rather diplomatically calls their "ridiculous" demand. But facing threats of disciplinary action, he took the rifle home at the end of the day. (The police officer also asked Mr. Washburn to remove a spear he had received as a gift from a former student.)

In a letter the next day, Mr. Washburn protested that the gun A) is inoperable, B) has been touched only once when he changed offices since he mounted it, and C) likely hasn't been fired for more than 100 years.

But OU officials wouldn't budge. They told Mr. Washburn they had received several complaints from members of the OU community who felt "threatened" by the antique. Removing it, they reasoned, was the only way to end "all the distress it is causing."

When Mr. Washburn asked what rule he had violated, school officials pointed to the school's "Workplace Violence Policy," which, they claim, had been implemented some 18 months earlier. The policy focuses on "threats, violent behavior, or acts of intimidation." But it also clearly forbids "carrying or displaying weapons of any kind, including but not limited to firearms, martial arts devices, bows and arrows or other archery types of devices, sling shots, blow darts, blackjacks, stun guns, lasers or other kinds of submission devices."

Mr. Washburn says this incident was the first he had ever heard of these rules, a contention supported by several of his colleagues, and confirmed by the school in a letter from the OU legal affairs director, John Burns. "As to the Workplace Violence Policy, you are certainly probably correct that you or others have not heard of it before this matter arose." But ignorance of the policy is no excuse, Mr. Burns argued. And although it has hung for 15 years without any objections, that "does not 'grandfather' a permission for you to have a gun in you[r] office, decoration or not; and there is no provision for an exception for you in the policy."

Fortunately, Mr. Washburn is a tenured professor who can afford to fight back. He also has a sense of humor. "The purpose of this note is to formally request that the cannons that are fired when Ohio University scores at football games not only never be fired again as long as the present Workplace Violence Policy is in effect, but that they be removed from campus," he wrote in a note to Mr. Burns and OU President Robert Glidden. "I go to the games, and I feel threatened by them."

If Mr. Washburn has a sense of humor, administrators at Ohio University apparently do not. Gary North, vice president of administration, fired back at Mr. Washburn, first belittling his "illogical" complaint about the "noisemaker" actually, a functioning replica of an 1841 Howitzer cannon and then dismissing it. And while Mr. North concedes that the policy "clearly needs revision for greater clarity," that is a curious admission considering what the school did next.

Ohio University filed a formal "Unacceptable Behavioral Incident Report Form" against its own professor. While that will allow them to revisit their prohibition on antique guns, they will also investigate the "underlying behavioral issues" of Mr. Washburn. The last point is particularly amusing because, as Mr. Washburn points out, in displaying his gun he "didn't behave in any fashion." The gun just sat there. The subsequent investigation of Mr. Washburn's behavior becomes a bit less humorous, though, if the administrators are referring to Mr. Washburn's protest. Either way, they've threatened to make the report a part of his permanent record.

The school has told Mr. Washburn that he will know by April 15 whether he is allowed to put the rifle (and spear) back on his wall. If they say no, of course, Ohio University will not only invite further ridicule for this silly policy; the school risks becoming the go-to example of the law of unintended consequences.

The theater department will have to gut the performance of "Goodnight Desdemona," scheduled for later this spring, because of the play's elaborate fight scenes. Physical education classes will put down their bows and arrows, putting an end to archery lessons. The school's library will be required to take down its display of Indo-Asian spears and weapons. Even the chemistry department, with all the talk these days about chemical weapons, will have to work only with harmless chemicals.

And then there's that cannon.


Stephen F. Hayes is a staff writer at the Weekly Standard.

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