Wednesday, January 22, 2003

Discussion of Flag-gate flares up 

In the continuing saga of the College Republicans and the altercation with offended faculty, the University Chronicle provides front-page coverage. (Link requires free registration.) Most of it repeats the story that we've told here before. (Original story here, latest followup here.) It reports on the incident for the first time, since the paper was on semester break with the rest of us, and reports on VP Church's apology. There is discussion of one of the JPFO's flyers that Karasik says she was disturbed by and wished to express her disapproval of. (The offending material was reported to me to have been this poster.) And, of course, of the ensuing altercation between her and one of the students who was taking pictures for the CRs' photo journal, which Prof. Karasik insisted she didn't want to have taken for fear of how it would be used.

There is also a report of a meeting between the student-photographer and the professor in the provost's office. The meeting was cut short by the presence of the equity representative, Patrice Arsenault, from the faculty union state office. Ms. Arsenault is a lawyer and is listed in the Inter-Faculty Organization's directory as an "equity advocate", and since there is a complaint already filed against the professor and the possibility of a cross-complaint filed by her (for taunting the professor at least, and perhaps for fabricating parts of his story), the student wisely chose to not continue the meeting. The meeting's involvement of Ms. Arsenault is highly unusual for a case such as this, particularly when all parties seem to want to find the solution amicably and as something produced on-campus. The role of an "equity advocate" -- who normally deals with salary equity and feminist issues -- in a meeting of this sort seems beyond her normal purview.

The article sparked an email from the chair of Prof. Karasik's department, who deplored the headline (it says that she's been "charged", when in fact the investigation is ongoing) and argues that she is being tried in the media. I don't recall them having this problem when the anti-Semitism case painted certain administrators very publicly in a bad light, but wrong is wrong, and the campus paper really should have been more careful with the headline. Still, Chair Luke Tripp tries to present "facts" to "set the record straight", but misses the mark in a key way. "This case is NOT about the violation of free speech rights," he says, not once but three times -- but what did VP Church apologize for then? And why would he have asked the CRs to take down the flag if not after a request from Karasik?

Let's be very clear about this. That an altercation occurred between professor and student is not in doubt; neither is there any doubt in my own mind that both sides could have behaved a little better. And I quite completely agree that the professor has apologized for her behavior; undoubtedly she regrets that. The issue to me IS one of free speech, no matter how many times Karasik, Tripp or anyone else would gainsay it. I would post on this issue to the same degree I have now if no altercation occurred. The professors see the kiosk, don't like it, are offended and speak their minds to the students running it. Fine to there. Then they go to the VP and as a result the VP comes and asks the kiosk to remove some of the materials. How can we not infer that the professors asked that the display have the offending materials taken down??? And at what point have the professors apologized for that?

Someone who does get it is Professor Jeffery Bineham, who writes in today's St. Cloud Times on limits to free speech in the context of this case. I disagree with Jeff, who dismiess my statement that the only answer to speech that offends or is wrong in some way is more speech. "[H]armful speech can cause injuries and that those injuries do not evaporate because of 'more speech,'" he says. That's a straw man, however. Of course some speech harms, but not every harm is addressed by coercive limits. Jack and I had this discussion earlier today, where we discussed whether we'd rather live in a world where we support free speech even if it means you can't prosecute every instance of child pornography, or limited speech that would get rid of all child pornography. I am leery of thinking government is the place that deals with this; finding Pete Townsend used child porn just once was enough to make me want to remove all my Who records from my collection. If enough of us have that reaction, maybe we dry up the demand for this perversion. But government can't attack demand in a democracy; like drugs, it has to make war on the supply side, and "the war on porn" takes the First Amendment as a casualty.

Disagreement aside, Jeff comes down on the university's handling of the kiosk. Agreeing that "[t]he university should tolerate a greater range of speech than most other institutions in our society", he concludes:
Universities must make difficult judgments in response to "problematic" speech, but those judgments must be informed by careful thought, by evaluation of circumstances and by reasoned prognosis about the consequences of such judgments for the academic and living/working environments.

If they don't make careful judgments we will be left with the kind of quick reaction practiced in the St. Cloud State case, where the campus community received an unfortunate lesson: Don't articulate controversial ideas in public, because provocative messages might result in administrative action.
Well done.