Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Freedom of speech and the responsibility for reactions to it

Pondering the Day of Silence that occurs in American high schools had me looking at some of the free speech issues involved. America of course has much greater leeway than Australia when it comes to freedom of student expression (that wonderful First Amendment of theirs). The specific application of the First Amendment to the issue of student rights was dealt with in the landmark case Tinker vs Des Moines School District, in which it was held that school officials could not ban students from wearing black armbands in protest of the Vietnam war. The court held that student speech cannot be infringed unless it can be shown that it "would materially and substantially disrupt the work and discipline of the school" to allow the speech. Importantly, a school must "be able to show that its action [in restricting speech] was caused by something more than a mere desire to avoid the discomfort and unpleasantness that always accompany an unpopular viewpoint." I'm told that the precedent set has been watered down somewhat in recent years, but it's worthwhile to note the general principle here: even unpopular speech that the majority will disagree with cannot be banned on that basis alone.

The dissenting voice of Justice Black that the armbands were disruptive is also illuminating for the reason he gave as to why he thought that way: "While the record does not show that any of these armband students shouted, used profane language, or were violent in any manner, detailed testimony by some of them shows their armbands caused comments, warnings by other students, the poking of fun at them, and a warning by an older football player that other, nonprotesting students had better let them alone. "

Interesting how Justice Black insists that the armband students should be considered responsible for the disruption and distortion that other students caused in response to the armbands. Are they responsible? I don't think they are.

When Muslims around the world protested the publication of the Danish caricatures, sometimes violently, the view that the violence of the protests was the responsibility of the cartoons' publishers was resoundingly rejected by free speech advocates. Yet here, at a much smaller level, disruption caused by students in reaction to unpopular speech was blamed not on the students being disruptive, but on the unpopular speech. I'm guessing that Justice Black was not a big fan of Vietnam war opponents' views, and that had something to do with who he blamed for the disruption that was actually the responsibility of the people who threatened people for daring to publicly express an unpopular opinion.

Conservative Christian parents are currently being encouraged to pull their kids out of school on the Day of Silence. If they do that, I hope that they are willing to see their children bear the brunt of the punishment that any delinquent child should get for non-attendance. I hope also that they do not try to blame their own sabotage of their childrens' education on other students expressing their constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of speech. Unpopular speech that provokes an anti-social reaction is not responsible for that reaction: the person reacting anti-socially is responsible for it.

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