Monday, March 19, 2007

More Freedom of Speech Misunderstandings

Today, my wife directed me towards the livejournal of one of her favorite filmmakers, Nick Zedd. In his March 18, 2007 post, he details a confrontation he had over the Columbia University students who stormed the stage during a speech by Minutemen Project founder Jim Gilchrist. His argument boils down to this: the students violated Gilchrist's 1st amendment right of freedom of speech, and that the students should have countered Gilchrist with "reasoned debate" since that will "negate" an "illogical and indefensible point of view." Naturally, I became interested in this because of my recent comments regarding Ann Coulter's "Macaca moment."

As I have argued before, the 1st amendment guarantees freedom from the government limiting one’s speech, but does not guarantee a forum through which to disseminate that speech. Gilchrist has the right to say whatever he likes, but he has no constitutional right to a stage to voice that speech from. And the students have a vested interest in voicing their grievances with the university’s decision to give Gilchrist a forum through which to disseminate his speech.

Gilchrist was given a public forum, and these students did what the underprivileged and disenfranchised do (in the context that these students were not given a forum of equal influence to represent their opposing point-of-view) -- they assembled and protested. Zedd would have preferred that the students engage in reasoned debate instead of civil disobedience, but I have my doubts that Gilchrist would ever agree to such conditions. It seems that the students' decision to storm the stage with more speech was the most effective way to counter speech that they didn't agree with.

And now these students may be facing disciplinary action from their university for exercising another part of their 1st amendment rights -- freedom of assembly and protest.

Again, I don’t see this as a censorship issue at all, because the students were not limiting Gilchrist’s speech in any way -- he can still say whatever he wants about immigration in the US, and the students haven’t made it illegal for Gilchrist to voice his opinions. Instead, the students were simply protesting Gilchrist’s speech at their university by using more speech. I wonder if Zedd is OK with limiting the students’ speech of protesting speech they disagree with? I would think not, but this is the logical extension of his argument.

inally, there’s a problem with Zedd's central argument that:

"an illogical and indefensible point of view will be negated by reasoned debate."

This is not always necessarily true -- illogical and indefensible positions have frequently (especially in the last six years) overcome reasoned debate in politics. Take, for example, the Bush administration’s position on torture: how has reasoned debate “negated” the administration’s indefensible argument in favor of torture, considering that the administration’s position is currently official US policy?

No comments: