Sunday, April 02, 2006

The Role of Educators When Students Exercise Free Speech Rights

The definitive word on the topic is here. It's an enthralling essay. Tidbits:

There is obviously a great temptation to pass rules to limit provocative speech, especially when there is a risk that a mob will form and turn violent. It is at precisely those moments that people in responsibility need to act courageously. This is not always easy for educators, who are not used to contemplating physical threats. Almost exactly 35 years ago, my father confronted this problem at the University of Iowa, which then proposed the adoption of rules to guide faculty and staff when there was civil unrest on campus. The draft Statement on Professional Ethics asserted that a “professor’s first priority should be to do all in his power to prevent death and injuries due to violence” during periods of high tension on campus. My father objected strenuously to that formulation, writing then:
[w]hen conditions on campus are abnormal, the threat usually involves a demand for scapegoats, as some tried to make ROTC a scapegoat for last year’s Cambodian intervention. It is at these crucial moments that the first obligation of faculty members must be to act rationally and to stand firmly behind any member of the community whose rights are threatened. Standing firm is a difficult matter, since capitulation often appears to be the only way of averting violence. Nevertheless, every time we sacrifice somebody else’s rights in the hope of avoiding bloodshed we are guilty of unethical and unprofessional conduct and make our own rights less secure and less respected.

One would think that point would be so obvious that it did not need to be stated, but there it is. When rights are involved, avoiding violence can never be the highest priority. Otherwise, the exercise of our rights would always be subject to veto by the first people who threatened violence.

Now, however, high school students all over the country are learning that their rights are worthless if some group prone to violence alleges that it has been insulted. It is no less than nauseating to contemplate.

Finally, it is difficult to see how a school can ban the wearing of a shirt with an American flag -- or a Mexican one, for that matter -- without violating the holding of Tinker v. Des Moines School District, in which the Supreme Court said that schools could not ban the wearing of armbands evoking objection to the war in Vietnam.

There's so much more, and you're doing yourself a disservice if you don't read the whole thing.

1 comment:

TigerHawk said...

Thank you for the kind words.