Mar 10, 2015
Sometimes Free Speech Is Ugly Speech
But It's Still Supposed to Be Free
I was outraged yesterday when the news story aired of video of a group of University of Oklahoma frat boys singing a chant about hanging blacks to keep them out of their oh-so-precious fraternity. But it wasn't just the content of that chant that had me outraged............it was that the president of the university was talking about expelling the members who sang that chant.
The University of Oklahoma is a public school, meaning it's part of the state of Oklahoma. And this government employee just threatened to expel a group of people for using their right of free speech. Offensive free speech. But free speech. It's the offensive speech that causes trouble. The reality is that sometimes free speech is ugly speech, and that's when it needs defending.
So here I pull out my soapbox and climb up on it to defend the right of people to say something I would never in my life say and that they shouldn't have said, but still had the right to say.
We misunderstand "Free Speech" in this country. Person #1 says something. Person #2 doesn't like it and either criticizes it or tries to shut-up Person #1. Then Person #1 cries foul because we have free speech and Person #2 is interfering with it. The right of free speech does not mean freedom from consequences from that speech; it's freedom from government consequences from that speech ---- that's how it's "free." So as long as Person #2 isn't a government employee who's using or threatening to use his governmental position to do something punitive, it's not against the First Amendment which says:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
That's Congress shall make no law and, by extension, no other government body. It says nothing about individual people. If individual people hate what you say, they're free to tell you that, to protest you or even to organize a boycott.
But the president of a state university is not an individual person --- he's a government official. The university president, David Boren, is free to express his disgust with what was said. But when he threatens to use his official government position to expel the students, I don't think he can legally do that. Because that looks like government interference in free speech to me. Especially, because these weren't students in class. It's my impression that the bunch of frat boys were on a bus (probably a bus they hired) going to an event that was off-campus, so these were adults on their own rented private conveyance speaking their mind on their own time on non-university property.
Yes, what they were singing was offensive in the extreme. I was appalled. I just wrote about a lynching in January, and the only song I ever want to hear about lynching blacks is "Strange Fruit." If I had been on the bus, I would have stood up and told them. (If you doubt I would have done it, you don't know me. One of the things about growing old is that I'm just crankier than I used to be.) A bunch of privileged frat boys singing a racist song would annoy the hell out of me, so I'd have no problem telling them to close their mouths and listen to the story of the real lynching of Michael Donald, a boy their age who was killed just for being black. But that's me as an individual. I don't have the power to expel.
Yes, the national Sigma Alpha Epsilon organization is free to close that local chapter which they immediately did. Sigma Alpha Epsilon is a private organization. As I said, free speech does not mean freedom from consequences. I can see where the university can cut ties with that local chapter thus shutting it down. As I'd bet there was underage drinking happening on that bus (because I hope to god these young men at least have the paltry excuse of drunkenness for their stupidity in singing anything that revolting), the students can get in legal trouble for their illegal behavior.
However.................singing that chant was not illegal behavior. So the university expelling the individual students for saying something legal on their own time? I'm no lawyer, but I don't think so.
As I said, we misunderstand free speech in this country. Even that icon of liberalism and free speech, Jon Stewart, got it wrong on "The Daily Show" (7-23-12) when he supported the mayor of Boston sending a letter to Chick-fil-A about not opening a franchise in Boston because of Chick-fil-A's president's position on homosexual marriage. I was so disgusted by Jon Stewart, of all people, supporting government interference of free speech that I turned off "The Daily Show" and left it off until Stewart recanted his heresy. It took him over a week before (I'm guessing) someone explained the error of his position to him and Stewart finally came out in support of Chick-fil-A's president's free speech rights. But I was still disappointed in Stewart. He, of all people, should understand that right to say offensive speech is what needs defending most of all from governmental interference, because Jon Stewart has offended plenty of government officials.
You know who didn't misunderstand free speech? The Supreme Court when they protected some of the ugliest, most offensive speech possible................when they defended the right of the Westboro Baptist Church to picket military funerals in the case Snyder v Phelps (2011) in an almost unanimous decision in favor of free speech rights. The Supreme Court didn't agree with what the Westboro Baptist Church was saying at those protests; the opinion described the speech as "hurtful" and described its value to be "negligible." But, the Supreme Court decided that they had the right to say it without being penalized in court.
So what I would have wanted to hear from University of Oklahoma President David Boren was for him to express his revulsion with what those students said, but uphold their fundamental right to say it ------ not threaten to expel them for saying it.
Yes, sometimes free speech is ugly speech, but it's still supposed to be free.
Update 3-10-15: In the morning it took me to write this, two of the students were expelled by David Boren.
For more about school and politics, read "Five Defining Moments in School that Formed Opinions about the U.S. Government I Still Believe Today." If you enjoyed this, you might also like "My Credo as a Liberal."
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