November 14, 2010

Raising A Red Flag About Heckler's Vetoes

What is it with all the stories about hecklers' vetoes? After I felt moved enough by Pat Condell yesterday to praise a culture of free speech, I turn around and see this -- someone's offended by a kid putting an American flag on his bike, on Veteran's Day, and a public school official decides to censor it. The question is whether the display of the flag (or a corresponding counter-display of, say, a Mexican flag) would reasonably be seen to incite violence. Which seems very strange in this case because doesn't the school fly the American flag every day?

You don't have a right to not be offended. The fact that your child is learning about bad things that really did happen in history does not mean you can sue the school district for failing to sugar-coat things. You don't get to use the power of the government to silence speech you don't like simply for the reason that you don't like it.

What I suggest you do if you feel emotionally offended by someone expressing an opinion or discussing an issue in a way with which you disagree is to get over it and add to the debate rather than trying to subtract from it. This is the case even if the people who are exercising their rights of free speech are, by any objective or reasonable standard, best regarded as flaming asshats; flaming asshats have free speech rights, too.

The remedy to hearing really stupid, offensive things is not to censor them. It's to point out that they are stupid and offensive, and to offer one's own take on the topic under discussion. This is true even if the stupid, offensive statements you're calling on the carpet were articulated by your own husband who happens to be a United States Senator and a former major party candidate for President of the United States. The remedy for unpleasant speech is more speech.

You would think that would be obvious. Apparently, though, it isn't. Regardless, censoring the American flag on Veteran's Day not only makes for terrible politics, but it also crosses the line into a First Amendment violation. Absent a particularized, articulatable threat of violence or disruption of school activities, the student can fly a U.S. flag, a Mexican flag, can wear a pro-gay-rights T-shirt or an anti-gay-rights T-shirt, or any other kind of expressive display she wishes.

For the record, referring to each of the linked stories, my immediate reaction is:
  1. The kid in Monterey ought to be able to put an American flag on his bike if he wants. The school district was wrong to tell him to take it down. What the school district needs to do is teach the students that it's okay to be proud to be an American, and it's also okay to be proud to be of Mexican heritage, so it's not worth fistfights over racial tensions.
  2. The father in Michigan doesn't have the right to tell the school district not to use a particular textbook. If he doesn't like his daughter being taught from that textbook, maybe he ought to be an effing parent and talk with his daughter about what she's learning at school, rather than generating another stupid lawsuit I'll have to apologize for in another forum.
  3. The kids wearing the "straight pride" T-shirts have a right to do so. The fact that their actions are within the scope of their First Amendment rights does not ameliorate the fact that they are flaming asshats for choosing to use their rights in this fashion -- and worse for attempting to cloak their bigotry in religion, because by doing so, they make their coreligionists look bad too. The right response to bigotry is to criticize the bigots.
  4. I agree with the sentiments in the anti-bullying video, provided that the celebrities (and Cindy McCain, rather boldly subverting her own husband) are advocating that bullies should be ostracized by their peers, rather than punished by the authorities, for things like taunting and teasing. Violence or threats of violence should be punished, regardless of the motivation for the violence or threatened violence.
The big picture is that free expression is the paramount value here; no one has a right to silence people who say offensive things.

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