Free Speech And The Urge To Genuflect

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17 Responses

  1. Nullifier says:

    Why are people so easily aroused to righteous indignation over such ridiculously trivial matters? Now, granted Ms. Wallace went about her diatribe in a truly motes and beams fashion, "…So being the polite, nice American girl that my momma raised me to be"; but so what? Her video is funny for precisely the same reason watching The Three Stooges is funny; we see an idiot acting like an idiot without having the least suspicion that she is, in fact, an idiot. I mean, it's perfect. Well, it would have been if she'd done the video topless.

  2. Hi. Thanks for the thoughts. A quick response…

    I agree with you that one need not repudiate offensive speech to defend it on First Amendment grounds. I think it's appropriate to do so in some instances in which FIRE chooses not to, but that's a subject on which reasonable people can disagree.

    The question of whether FIRE an obligation to repudiate such speech, however, is secondary to the question of whether they have an obligation to describe such speech honestly and fully. I believe they do, and I believe that it is an obligation that they do not always meet.

    When FIRE launches a legal defense of a campus speech act, that defense often — as it did in Shibley's assessment of the Wallace video — includes an assessment of the "offensiveness" and "severity" of that speech. It is not demanding ritual denunciation to call upon FIRE and its representatives to accurately characterize such speech in the course of such an analysis.

    Was Shibley's misrepresentation of Wallace's video material to the First Amendment questions he raised? In my opinion it was not. But as I noted on my blog, FIRE has in the past misrepresented other speech acts in ways that caused me to question the soundness of their legal analysis.

    Finally, my name's Johnston, not Johnson.

  3. mojo says:

    "The type of man who wants the government to adopt and enforce his ideas is always the type of man whose ideas are idiotic."

  4. Ken says:

    My apologies for the misspelling.

    Here's where we disagree: I think the question of what it means to describe speech "fully" is contextual. You probably don't need to imply that FIRE was obligated to run a transcript. But you do think they should have added more detail. Here's the question: particularly now, when it's impossible to hide the full details in the age of Google, and given that FIRE usually links to secondary sources (and did, I believe, here) that lay out all of the speech, why does it matter? I made the point that the omissions you complain of – – that you characterize as misleading — were not material, in that they don't make a difference to the First Amendment analysis. You don't seem to be disagreeing with that, unless I mistake you.

  5. Three things:

    First, let me start by underscoring that I'm not just criticizing FIRE for not describing these speech acts as fully as I'd like — I'm also criticizing them for describing those acts inaccurately. I assume you agree that accuracy is important as an end in itself in these situations.

    Second, as to the importance of providing a full summary of the speech acts, an incomplete summary may be, or may be perceived as, an effort to minimize the offensiveness of the act in question so as to strengthen the rhetorical case for its protectedness. As I noted, Shibley characterized the Wallace video as not meeting the "severity" standard for sanction, while failing to mention the two elements of the video that came closest to satisfying that standard.

    An incomplete summary may, in other words, cloak defects in a legal analysis. That wasn't a serious problem here, since the Wallace video was so obviously protected speech, but it's been an issue for FIRE in the past.

  6. SPQR says:

    Except that you are underscoring something that isn't apparent, Angus, because you are in fact criticizing FIRE for exactly that. Not describing the speech the way you want them to – and something extraneous to their purpose.

  7. Mark Bennett says:

    I think that those defending free speech should, in describing "speech acts," (!) maximize their offensiveness. But that's a matter of style, and Mr. Johnston's appears to be an ethical complaint rather than a stylistic or rhetorical one.

    I know this isn’t politically correct, but when we change our writing because it "may be perceived" as an effort to minimize the offensiveness of speech," aren't we doing exactly what you're bemoaning, Ken? Isn't Mr. Johnston, here in the comments, advocating genuflection to mores?

  8. SPQR, Mark: I've articulated three criticisms of FIRE.

    First, they bend over backwards to avoid calling racist speech racist. I think that's a mistake from a stylistic and tactical perspective, but acknowledge that reasonable people can disagree.

    Second, they sometimes fail to provide (what I consider to be) an adequate summary of the content of the speech they're defending. That's a stylistic complaint, I suppose, though it's also an ethical one.

    Finally, they sometimes actively misrepresent the content of the speech they're defending. That's pretty much purely an ethical complaint.

  9. Base of the Pillar says:

    Why are you confusing your desire for OUTRAGE with their desire to defend the 1st Amendment? The latter is judgment neutral and has no bearing on the former. That bitch with scale can't see, after all.

  10. mendel feldsher says:

    A bit tangential, but your article reminds me of when people start with "with all due respect."

  11. Ken says:

    Mr. Johnston, in any case where you fault FIRE for its summary of the conduct at issue, has FIRE failed to link to primary sources describing the conduct in detail?

  12. Mr Johnston:

    I was disappointed that you did not note or address one of the main thrusts of FIRE's response; namely, that to call racist speech what it is (and thereby join a large, lively, and diverse choir already singing those hymns) would alienate or otherwise discourage the exiled speakers (like Ms. Wallace) from feeling comfortable seeking FIRE's support in protecting her/her rights. To do so would undermine their mission, which is not to condemn racism, but to condemn and discourage abuse of disciplinary procedures to silence unpopular views.

    It seems to me that saying, "protect speech" is a better course than saying "protect racist speech", which would create a greater appearance that one wants to protect objectionable speech, rather than speech in general.

  13. CJ says:

    I saw the video. I don't recall it word-for-word, but I remember not understanding why it could possibly be construed as at all offensive. The woman points out some behavior which she does not appreciate and some of which, in polite American company, certainly would be considered rude and unacceptable. She points out that the perpetrators of this behavior are of Asian ethnicity.

    Is it unacceptable to point out someone's ethnicity? Is that what is offensive? Is it unacceptable to point out behaviors which one considers rude? Is that what is offensive? Did I see an edited version in which some sort of derogatory racial epithet was removed?

    Prefacing public remarks with "I don't mean to offend anyone, but," used to be considered polite. It means, "I don't mean to criticize you, just your behavior." It's part of the traditional Western judeo-christian worldview of "despise the sin, love the sinner." It's part of a tradition of relatively open, relatively polite public debate which the Western world has enjoyed – and the rest of the world often has not.

    Admittedly, what the girl should have said is "Screw any of you who are offended by what I'm about to say. You're all boorish ignorant cretins. If you can't handle listening to my criticism, stop the video and go watch something else, you hypocritical buffoons. If you watch the video and you don't like what I have to say, I didn't charge you a fee for watching, so STFU. Oh – and if you think that my pointing out rude behavior by some Asian people is a slight against all Asians, then guess what – you're the one who is racist, you hypocritical moron."

  14. Patrick says:

    Speaking of morons, how does the phrase "Ching chong ting tong ling long" fit into your analysis CJ?

  15. Ken says:

    There are hordes of reasons he lets into his analysis like that, Patrick.

  16. Jacob Genzuk says:

    I read this article this morning, and I think the idea that prefacing any type of negative speech by first stating you don't mean it to be negative is (at least on its face) akin to telling a security guard that you're going just borrow something from a department store, and proceeding to walk out the door without paying.

    Keeping all of this mind, it is suddenly much more interesting to read Justice Scalia's dissent in Lawrence v. Texas, where at one point he begins a line of argument by stating, "Let me be clear that I have nothing against homosexuals…" and then proceeds to complain that the homosexual agenda has succeeded in "imposing [their] views in [the] absence of democratic majority will…."

  1. March 28, 2011

    […] in the The Kansas City Star), as well as by Lisa Brenner of laist. Meanwhile, Ken of Popehat praised FIRE for focusing exclusively on defending constitutionally protected speech without making value […]