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Question for the Free Speech advocates on my friendslist - 1370°C

Sep. 13th, 2007

07:30 pm - Question for the Free Speech advocates on my friendslist

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So, it's Autumn at the U, which means the God Squad are out in full force. Here, this takes the form of Brother Jed and his minions standing on the Mall at our campus espousing their (way over the top) beliefs in soap-box fashion. Fine, they have a right. Typically, a crowd of rubberneckers gather, some snickering and enjoying the entertainment value of it and some actively arguing with the evangelists (a few of whom in every crowd seem to know more about the Bible than the thumpers do). Usually, it's a fairly entertaining, if irksome, way to spend a few minutes between classes.

However. Last week, i was wandering by and stopped to hear Brother Jed and his 3 fiends friends, because i'm bizarrely fascinated by train wrecks. As i stood there, a member of a queer group on campus walked quietly up with a sign that had a simple hand-written message about tolerance for all and the web site of his group. Nothing inflammatory, or even particularly queer-centric other than the mention of the name of the group in question.

After some bog-standard religious gay-bashing comments, Brother Jed and then the guy who followed him proceeded to attack this quiet fellow personally. Among the comments directed at him were "You didn't have to suck that penis, you had a choice," "this fag here thinks..," "do you bend over?," (this to one of the other audience members), "homo," and a range of other very graphic attacks on this guy's sexual habits (mind you, no clue whether this guy was actually homosexual or was simply a member of the organisation). Some of the comments were so bad that i've plum blocked them out. This poor kid was polite as punch and said nothing back; he just stood there with his sign, while some of us congratulated him on his composure.

To me, and mind i'm pretty rabidly pro free speech, Brother Jed and his toadies should have been summarily booted off campus by the U cops standing nearby. I know that things like personal attacks are murky ground when it comes to free speech, and i'm not saying the government ought to intervene, but it seems fairly clear to me that this sort of thing violates the U's hate speech policies. I'm not trying to start a debate necessarily over whether they had the "right" to be saying those things under US law, but i guess i wonder if anyone else thinks that perhaps the U ought to be informed and take measures.

Comments:

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From:lollardfish
Date:September 14th, 2007 01:26 am (UTC)
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I'd find a way to report hate speech. It incites violence.
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From:_goodmanbrown_
Date:September 14th, 2007 04:23 am (UTC)
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These assholes thrive on controversy. I'd say avoid feeding the controversy, and avoid adding to the size of the gatherings around him.

That guy attracts crowds for two weeks every fall, when he's still novel to the freshmen, and still seems a ripe target for counter-protesters who want to feel like they're making a difference. By October, everyone will be bored and it'll all be a moo point. As they say.

Let him be swallowed by the same invisibility that swallows him every fall, after his two pointless weeks in the sun.
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From:_goodmanbrown_
Date:September 14th, 2007 05:10 pm (UTC)
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Here's an article on campus hate speech by David Velleman a philosopher who is now at NYU, and was at Michigan when he wrote this. Though a few factors make the Pastor Jeff case more complicated, I think, it still is a good argument for setting the bar to shut down speech on campus very, very high.

http://www.umich.edu/~urecord/0203/Oct07_02/10.shtml
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From:catness
Date:September 14th, 2007 04:51 am (UTC)

Not U-related advice, but...

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Sounds like Brother Jed's momma didn't raise him right.
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From:gothaminserenia
Date:September 14th, 2007 05:35 am (UTC)

The God Squad ... let them keep speaking!

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Wow. And interesting. I didn't know that sort of thing went on at the U of M.

Yes, our instinct is to wish these people would just shut up and go away, and to look toward "hate speech" laws and policies to do that. But that would be more harmful, in the long run.

It sounds like these evangelists came off as angry, intolerant, hateful assholes, while the polite young kid came off as a civil, reasonable person. That's exactly the outcome you could've hoped for. I feel bad for the kid but admire his bravado, putting himself out there to bear the brunt of their (attempted) insults. Sounds like he did a great job of drawing those people out to show their true colors, while keeping his cool. You know, every time these religious fanatics flap their gums, whether it's Pat Robertson advocating assassination, or whatever, I jump for joy because I love it when they shoot themselves in the foot. Shit, maybe I'll buy them a bigger bullhorn.

The U is an institution dedicated to learning. And it sounds like this was very educational for all those around. Stifling speech, even when hurtful and hateful, would deny students a valuable lesson in humankind. I'll bet most, or everyone, in the crowd came away agreeing with you, and that the only thing the God Squad succeeded at was converting people from christianity. And that's real progress, in my mind.

But to answer your question, I'd say if the evangelists had openly threatened the kid ("I'm gonna kill you", etc), then that would've been an appropriate point for the U police to intervene.
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From:royalewcheeze
Date:September 14th, 2007 06:07 am (UTC)
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ugh. i remember when the rabid pro-lifers descended on UNM. right during midterms, right in Zimmerman square.

their methods were much like the ones you were describing--hateful, disturbing, chaotic. the reason i got so hacked off about it (in addition to the fact that i felt what they were saying and their mode of delivery was repugnant) is because i honestly felt it was really disruptive. and in an academic setting, i don't agree with that.

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From:gorey_ballerina
Date:September 14th, 2007 12:41 pm (UTC)
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Point blank: there IS no free speech on University campuses. A lot of people may argue with me, but legally, free speech is not entirely protected in places of learning.

Why? A person's opinions may wildly disrupt learning. In a discussion class, if a student stands up and announces (for example) radical KKK ideals, his free speech may harm other students (not to mention proving dangerous for HIMSELF if his opinion isn't a popular one).

And I believe (but I don't know to what extent the law backs up) that once you hit the realm of personal attacks, it's not free speech. It's simply not OK to call someone a "fag." It's not OK to ask derogatory questions like that. It SHOULD be illegal to be a douchebag.
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From:elijahdprophet
Date:September 14th, 2007 02:59 pm (UTC)
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I think you are correct. I believe that permission must be given to people to do the soap box thing on campus, and as long as you are on the University property you must follow their rules. I would imagine that the U has a hate speech policy, as most of them do. I say contact the Dean of Students office.
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From:gorey_ballerina
Date:September 14th, 2007 03:27 pm (UTC)
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Yup. I'm a new assistant professor, and when I took a "teaching in psychology" course from an AWESOME professor a couple of years ago, he told us, "Students will tell you that they have the right to free speech on campus. THEY DON'T."

While it MAY be educational to see what the "intolerant religious jerk" stereotype looks like, it's also pretty educationally disruptive to have someone spewing absolute garbage on campus.

I think you're right about the "hate speech policy." I imagine that most universities have such a policy these days: not to protect students, per se, but to avoid getting sued over appearing to "support" or "tolerate" hate speech.
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From:gothaminserenia
Date:September 15th, 2007 03:30 am (UTC)
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Who's to determine what's garbage? That's for the people to decide for themselves! But how can they decide, if others pre-qualify and censor what can even be heard?

The problem is that trying to block "hate speech" teaches students exactly the wrong lesson ... that instead of debating & challenging someone when they voice a view, that it's ok to call in the authorities to shut down anyone they may disagree with. Then when those students graduate, they end up practicing that in society at large. So free speech is important, but it's particularly important on a college campus. Some of the most vital lessons are not taught in a classroom.

Free speech is a natural human right ... regardless of whether those in charge may sanction it or not.
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From:ferrousoxide
Date:September 15th, 2007 03:40 am (UTC)
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It's not about agreeing or disagreeing. Clearly, the appeal of Bro Jed is that nearly *everyone*, even the religious, disagree with him. The issue is that he was directly and personally attacking students on campus, not because of their beliefs, but because of who they are. Sure, he didn't threaten (unless telling someone they're going to hell counts as a threat), but i'm not sure threats are the issue. The campus has a policy about this sort of thing...if one of my students in class called another one a racial or homophobic slur, i'm *required* to report it. Why can this guy get away with saying far worse just because our University is public?
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From:gothaminserenia
Date:September 15th, 2007 05:24 am (UTC)
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Well, I was responding to the statement "there IS no free speech on University campuses" in this thread.

Ok. So what's a personal attack? Calling someone a fag or a nigger? How about calling someone fat, or stupid, or ugly? Or even calling someone gay (normally regarded as an insult by hetero males)? Where's the line?

Namecalling and insults are rude, boorish, and childish ... but they're just words. Really, I think people have become far too thin-skinned and easily offended these days. Becoming an adult means learning how to stand up for yourself ... and that means taking a few barbs from time to time. Sad but true. Standing up for yourself means valuing who you are, not what others say about you.

That's the reason I didn't get particularly excited when that guy called me gay at Liquor Lyles that night. Was I attacked, should I have felt offended? Perhaps, but I wasn't. I know who I am ... and I could care less what some random idiot says who doesn't even know me, whose main accomplishment in life is probably stumbling home drunk.

if one of my students in class called another one a racial or homophobic slur, i'm *required* to report it.

Ok, that's pretty damn scary. So if you call someone a nigger you can be reported. What if you refer to someone as "black" rather than "African-American", and they take offense? Is that reportable too? Sheesh, is it safe to say anything to anybody anymore? This is getting ridiculous.

How about the word queer? That used to be widely regarded as offensive, but then gays started calling that to each other, with the goal of lessening its impact as an insult. So ... if a hetero calls someone a queer, is it an attack, but if another gay says it, then it's ok?

You're on very, very murky ground here.

As far as I'm concerned, the line for prohibited speech should be overt threats ("you better look behind you on your way home tonight") or harming someone's livelihood in a tangible way by telling lies (slander/libel). Period.
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From:ferrousoxide
Date:September 15th, 2007 05:29 am (UTC)
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I see your point, but when my "really, i need to kill you now" instinct triggers, i wonder. I really don't think is fine to call someone a racial, gender, or religious slur on the street. It's asinine, but probably protected. That's not at all what i'm talking about. I really wish i'd made this post closer to the event so i could have remembered what he actually said. You know me, i'm generally not scandalised, but i was truly offended and horrified specifically because he was allowed to say these things on a *University* campus that has a policy that i'd wager prohibits them. Whether the policy is right or not is a moot point. I'm saying: i think this is against U policy, should i do something about it?
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From:gothaminserenia
Date:September 15th, 2007 06:45 am (UTC)
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Whether the policy is right or not is a moot point. I'm saying: i think this is against U policy, should i do something about it?

On the contrary! It's your call, but the policy itself should be part of your decision.

Let me give some related examples ...

One of the things Libertarians support is something called FIJA (the Fully Informed Jury Amendment). Essentially, it would require judges to inform jury members that their role is not simply to determine if someone broke the law, but to consider whether the law itself is valid. (People on juries already have this right, but most aren't aware of it, so they kowtow to the prosecutor who tells them they must convict if the accused is guilty.) In fact, the reason the Founding Fathers set up trial by jury, instead of just giving power to a Judge, was to give citizens a final check & balance on the system. So ... if you're on a jury, and someone is clearly guilty of violating a drug law, but you think the law is unjust, or you know that the government had no Constitutional authority to make drug laws, can you say the accused is Not Guilty? Absolutely.

During the Nazi regime, the government made all sorts of laws and policies requiring employers to disclose if they had Jews on their payrolls, or requiring citizens to inform the police if they knew of any Jews living the their neighborhoods. Many Germans did not comply. And they're the heroes today, aren't they?

So, if you don't agree with the University's policy, do you still need to do something? The answer is No.
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From:gothaminserenia
Date:September 15th, 2007 09:27 am (UTC)
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I wanted to add that I'm not saying you should go against what you believe. You should do what you feel is right ... I'm just hoping maybe to influence those beliefs a bit. ;-)

You know, it's a lot more fun to "fight the good fight" than it is to stand up for principles which end up allowing Brother Jed & his kind to do what they do. But I think it's something that needs to be done.
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From:fractallaw
Date:September 17th, 2007 09:01 pm (UTC)
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You make an interesting point about what you're required to do in a classroom, but I think overall society is better served by not limiting free speech except in extreme cases, like threats of violence.

It sounds to me like the guy with the sign just stood there and let Brother Jed make an ass of himself. If Jed been booted from campus he would have been able to make a big fuss about being persecuted and the fact that he had been making hateful comments would have been lost in that.

He wasn't booted, so he had plenty of opportunity to show everyone exactly what he was really like.
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From:ferrousoxide
Date:September 18th, 2007 05:45 am (UTC)
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Yar. I talked to a few people about that too. But everyone really knows what he's like. As far as i can tell, people only watch him for entertainment value. I've never even seen a religious person agree with him. It's like baiting the trolls in meatspace, which is, of course, less than helpful.

So, i reckon everyone knows his true colours. But i'd have hated for him to get any local or national press for being booted off campus ("our rights were infringed upon!"). I just wish someone official had said *something* considering we're on a campus that makes no bones about the fact that if you harass or injure someone in the name of religious/racial/gender-based/sexuality-based issues, it's a hate crime and is looked upon with a more critical eye than other issues.
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From:gorey_ballerina
Date:September 15th, 2007 10:45 am (UTC)
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Well, in my personal experience, and the way I enforce this rule in my own classroom, is when the VAST majority of the class takes on a look of complete "I cannot believe he/she said that" combined with the actual content of what the person said.

It's not a matter of censoring my students. Usually, as I said somewhere else around here, it's a matter of PROTECTING the person who said the terrible thing.

For example, if one of my students said "I think all niggers should _____," I am NOT going to try to make a lesson out of it. I'm NOT going to play kindergarten teacher and say "Who has a DIFFERENT point of view than Jimmy" or "How do you feel about what Jimmy has to say?"

I'm going to shut that topic down. FAST. Because things are going to get ugly.

I'm just saying that I try to be fairly liberal. I'm not going to ask everyone to shut the hell up if they voice a political belief I'm against. But when a situation has the potential to get ugly, if things get too inflamed AND AREN'T BEING DISCUSSED IN A SEMI-RATIONAL WAY, I personally will not let it continue. At that point, people aren't talking with their minds, but revert to emotional arguments (which usually has NOTHING to do with the class topic at hand).

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From:gothaminserenia
Date:September 18th, 2007 07:44 am (UTC)
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That's different. You certainly have a perogative to maintain order during your classes ... which could include any number of issues, like smalltalk, throwing paper airplanes, whatever. While they're young adults, some are still growing up a bit, and occasionally can use a guiding hand on how to properly conduct themselves. A classroom is a good opportunity to provide that.

I was speaking more of speech in public areas, such as general areas of campus.
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From:dscj
Date:September 14th, 2007 01:05 pm (UTC)
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Brother Jed has been around the campus for years, doing exactly what you have described. My friends used to take pleasure in showing up at his locations and giving him his due in grief back, and as you saw, liked the entertainment value of such a small minded individual who has decided to thrust his ideas and thoughts on others.

Here's the thing though: Doesn't that young man have the equal right to give his message without harassment as well? I mean, Brother Jed can sit there and spout all he wants about how there should be his one god and how everyone else in the universe will be damned forever to hell for not following his beliefs. However, when it comes down to personally attacking an individual for quietly showing his support of an organization, that's his freedom of speech as well. I would have thought that based on that, Brother Jed could be shown off campus.

Rights, they really are a two way street.
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From:dequath
Date:September 17th, 2007 12:20 pm (UTC)
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Free speech is a right that everyone should have Even this Brother Jed bloke. And he even has the right to disagree with gay people/ lifestyle etc. Hell i disagree with Catholicism but im not gonna stand at the local church screaming at the priest that hes a hatemonger. I guess what im trying to say is..Free speech and everything is fine..disagreements are fine. but when you start either physically or verbally attacking somebody for who they are or whatthey are then that should be seen as unacceptable. And IMO if The Gay Group are not allowed to speak in peace without being attacked then neither should Jed and his cronies.

I wonder if i made any sense with this..
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