Sunday, June 03, 2012

Free Speech Revisited

Today I was listening to NPR and they reported on the anniversary of two important events.

The first was in reference to the Supreme Court decision about the Neo-Nazi rally in Skokie, Illinois, in the later '70s.  Skokie was the home of a community of Holocaust survivors.  A Neo-Nazi group from Chicago wanted to hold an assembly/parade there.  Community members tried to get an injunction to stop it.  In the end, the Supreme Court upheld the Neo-Nazi's right to free expression.  It was a landmark case, of course, not unlike the Westboro Baptist (how I hate to call them that!) decision last year.  Even the most reprehensible speech gets protected.  It has to be that way for the rest of us to have our freedom of speech, simply because someone might find our speech reprehensible.  I know people will disagree with me, but the right to free expression is as important to Christians as the right to free exercise of religion.  We cannot exercise one without the other.  Lots of speech gets "said" that I don't like.  I have to live with that.  I'm pretty absolutist on it, as is the Supreme Court.

I like to pride myself that I defend freedom of speech in my class, but I fail in this regard because (a) I have to protect the learning environment, too, and (b) I have to correct my students sometimes, and (c) I can't let truly offensive things get said in class, at least not without acknowledging that the student is wrong to say those things.  But I don't mind if students disagree with me.  There are some hot button issues (like child porn and prostitution at any level, since I don't believe very many women go into prostitution of their own free will). And I can be opinionated.

So you can imagine my dismay when I student said I was a "hater" on my student evaluations.  Opinionated I can take (who isn't opinionated?  I know very few people who aren't) but "hater" to me means "bigot" and "racist." From my discussions with people, I've found out that "hater" doesn't mean anything, it's just a thoughtless term immature students use.  So be it.  But it has give me pause.

The other story on NPR was about the famous photograph of the young Vietnamese girl who was running down the road, naked, after a napalm attack.  The photographer saw to it that she was cared for and has remained friends with the girl, now a woman in her 40s in Canada.  It was a sweet story, especially to know she survived and is doing well..  However, I already knew that, because years ago I was working on a missions magazine and there was an article about the woman, a Mrs. Fook, and how she had become a Christian and went to one of the mission's churches. 

The NPR story pointed out that the New York Times had a policy about frontal nudity but made an exception for the photo, which one a Pulitzer for its photographer.  Whether that was good or bad is debatable.  In a way it objectified the little girl, but it did change public opinion about the war, which perhaps needed to be done.  Having lived through that period, I never know what to think about that war objectively. 

Both stories are about freedom of expression, at their core.  I write about this today because of the accompanying post about Dr. Richard Land and because I've been thinking about the Internet and free speech.  We all have a forum now, and with thousands of radio stations and hundreds of cable stations and billions of websites, no one can say he or she can't express him/herself.  You need only go to the public library to keep a blog going; a blog is free. 

And with this abundance of opportunity comes excess of talk, and with excess of talk comes the greater likelihood that we will fall to the temptation of saying/writing intemperate things.  I have done it, and hope not to again.  I wouldn't want to have evidence that I really was a "hater." So ironic since I got an award for service to the school right after that!  I think the student said that because I said that Barack Obama talks too much.  He does.  It's documented.  He gave more public speeches his first year in office that all the presidents Washington to McKinley combined.  Why?  Because he had opportunity, travel was more accessible, and TV/radio was available.

It is analogous to epublishing.  Lots of great books can get published now because of epublishing and because everything doesn't have to go through an established publishers.  Likewise, a lot (and I mean a lot) of trash is published for the same reason. 

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