"Free speech is not to be regulated like diseased cattle and impure butter."- William O. "Wild Bill" Douglas,
U.S. Supreme Court Justice & American Badass,
Record-holder for Most Impeachment Attempts
OXFORD, Ohio (ZP) -- I remember sitting in Dr. M's office, back in 2001, arguing over a grade I'd received on a quiz in his dreaded media law class. More appropriately, I remember sitting in Dr. M's office, losing an argument over a grade.
At one of toughest universities in North America, M. was, by far, the hardest instructor in the College of Liberal Arts. And the old bastard had friggin' failed me - I supposedly earned that whopping 30 percent, having aced the multiple-choice section.
He'd given me zero points on short essay questions that, I felt, were passionate defenses of the evils of government suppression of free expression. But his blood-red comments were sharper than razorblades, slashed right through my reasoning with simple NO!s in the margins of my blue book, the words SEE ME scribbled on the last page like an epitaph.
In his office that day, I argued and raged and vented; Dr. M. simply nodded and listened. When I finished my diatribe about democracy and hate speech and what should and shouldn't be protected under the First Amendment, the old prof leaned forward and put a bony Minnesota finger in my face.
He'd given me zero points on my short essays, he explained, because I rode the fence in my arguments against censorship, picked out which parts of cases like Brandenburg v. Ohio, R.A.V. v. The City of St. Paul, and Yates v. United States that I personally agreed with and disregarded what I found objectionable. He accused me of censoring the course materials to fit my worldview.
To understand the fluidity of things like the First Amendment and its freedoms, I'd have to learn to stand up and walk on that fence. If I wanted to pass his class, too, I'd have to be willing to see beyond what I wanted to see, to give up on the herd mentality that allows most folks to simply draw from two pastures when an answer is needed for comfort.
To embrace the wholeness of the Rule of Law, the organic, fluid body of jurisprudence that encompasses certain unalienable human rights, one must learn to walk atop barbed wire to bear witness to a holistic justice, free of personal bias or politics of the moment, with those beliefs serving as not a legal compass but as insight into the motives behind things like censorship.
M. took the crumpled Blue Book from my fist, tacked an extra 15 percentage points onto that grade. Even if I'd made the mistake of riding a fence that should've been beneath my feet, the just teacher heard out his lost student's reasoning before he passed final judgment.
A whopping 45 percent. The hardest failing grade I ever truly earned.
From that point on, I've tried to avoid riding the fence. Sitting on a post and waiting for mob-rule opinion to determine freedom's boundaries, I've learned, only opens the gates toward dictatorship and oppression.
To walk the fence in a democratic society, one where the free flow of ideas and art and writing is cherished, is to stand above the mob rules of political and popular correctness, to be willing to scream Freedom! without ever looking down into the fields for support.
Cowards and madmen can keep the fence posts warm, have their legs tugged at by those seeking an ally in their moral and political arguments.
I can't blame them. Walking the straight and narrow is always hardest to do when one has only a love for intellectual freedom to preserve one's sense of balance.
* * * *
A strange midnight email swept across the Local U.'s fiber-optic freeways, a hastily-written, chilling dispatch to virtually all of Oxford Fucking Ohio. With diplomacy as subtle as a hatchet to the face, the email let the Online World know about the supposed hate speech that had defiled the hallowed grounds of the Public Ivy:
"...I strongly condemn this display and deplore that in this campus community any person would believe this display is in any way acceptable. We must redouble our efforts as a community to educate every student here on the historic patterns of racism in this society..."
A group of students had - gasp! - hung nooses from the branches of a tree! And students and the public watched helplessly as the cads dangled historic symbols of hatred and injustice before their innocent eyes. The fiends even dared to plead ignorance to this fact, and - Thank Goodness! - the local police confronted them and removed the vile, hideous hangman's tools before the poor, defenseless children and something called the African-American community saw it!
"Oh Thank God! That kind of shit needs to be- "
I caught myself, mid-sentence, as I read from the comfy confines of my bed Wednesday morning. I almost choked to death on my bowl of Biblically-inspired organic cereal, the taste of guilt like blood on my tongue.
"- needs to be censored by a state-funded, public university?
"Waitagoddamnminute... even the Ku Klux Klan has the right to express itself... religious groups, campus activists, the staff union, even the pro-anorexia advocates... "
I lost my appetite. I felt sick to my stomach.
"'...Redouble our efforts to educate the students?' What the fuck does that mean?"
And when did a display has to be "acceptable" to a campus community to be considered acceptable under the First Amendment? Regardless of intent, or public perception, was this, possibly protected speech? Could a marketplace of ideas sell off civil liberties like dime store junk?
Happy Halloween, folks.
One American university decided to go trick-or-treating this year, all dressed up as a Police State. And it went about toilet-papering mailboxes at midnight, wiping everyone's ass with the Bill of Rights in the name of a justice not seen in Ohio since Kent State.
* * * *
And those no-good, evil proponents of hate who'd dared to hang a noose in the era of Jena Six hype, where we're taught scream racism! at the sight of a rope?
Art students. Aspiring artists who sought nothing more than the satisfactory completion of a course requirement. The group was preparing a faculty-approved public exhibit as part of a class assignment.
The students tried to explain themselves and did remove their work the moment they realized that the project offended their peers - or, at least, the mob that confronted them.
They had a cool idea, to turn a reviled symbol into art, something beautiful and thoughtful.
But, by the time that information was made publicly available, their own university had already portrayed them as ignorant savages bent on creating racial unrest in a press release. The same mob bastardization of justice that, historically, has led to actual lynchings in this country sentenced them before the facts were presented.
Yes, there was indeed a hate crime committed in Oxford this week. The teachers took a few nooses and executed the creative rights of their students, without so much as a show trial, sentenced to censorship before any formal investigation or disciplinary hearing.
* * * *
The theme of the installation, I've learned, concerned the imagery of life and death - the final product was to include a tire swing, symbolic of the innocence of carefree youth, and the slipknots were to represent their ancient purpose - death.
The theme, along with the choice of media, is eerily reminiscent of an early installation by one of this country's hottest young artists, Los Angeles-based Kori Newkirk. But at the Local U., well, maybe a critically-acclaimed black artist wouldn't have to ask for permission before recreating his startling Swings in the Family Tree as part of his homework.
Maybe, in a climate of fear, in a land where black rap artists are called before Congress for offending the mythological, unified African-American Community, where John Denver and Twisted Sister once saved rock and roll from Tipper Gore, civil liberties are to be limited based on the color of one's skin, or by sexual orientation, or even age?
Maybe a straight woman can't create a sculpture that includes a police baton in tribute to the Stonewall Rebellion? Maybe a cowboy can't write poems based on Lakota and Apache war songs? Or maybe a German architect can't design a Holocaust museum?
Maybe we should ban nonblack hip-hop artists, or white blues musicians?
And maybe playing Billie Holiday in my office offends this campus community with strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees? Good God! I didn't fill out the paperwork first, ask for formal permission! And- gasp! - an Afro-Irish woman is singing noose lyrics written by a Jewish Communist schoolteacher! Somebody haul me down for sensitivity training!
Let us, then, ban other historic symbols of death and the artist themes they inspire. And the symbols of youthful innocence, too, for that matter.
Crosses? Have to go. Some people don't find reminders of Christ's execution acceptable in this campus community. Besides, someone might think, for instance, that a white man propping up a crucifix intends to set it ablaze - can't have that, can we?
Or how about trains? We've had two students die tragically this year along the tracks...
Or shall we ban the NROTC from marching with rifles because the majority of faculty find the Iraq situation reprehensible?
Who needs free expression anyway?
We have diversity committees to tell us what to believe, curriculum committees to tell us what to teach, and government officials to tell us what is acceptable to all and deplorable to none - if we disagree, well, they'll just redouble their efforts to educate us...
* * * *
How I would've loved the chance to see probably one of the most thought - provoking art displays in this community's history. How I'd have loved the chance to watch undergraduates debate its meaning, to hear some faculty call it an affront to decency and to hear others call it genius.
How exciting it could've been. We could've used the opportunity to invite back one of the big alumnae, Rita Dove. Maybe the poet would've trashed the students' work. She may have found it inspiring, too, the innocent bravery of a few kids who turned a weapon into a statement about life. Or maybe ol' P.J. could've wrote about it, been lured back to teach a course on controversial literature?
Those opportunities are gone now. The display removed and the artists humiliated, the electronic strong-arm tactic will more than likely chill unpopular expression in this town to the artistic equivalent of absolute zero.
Why string up the artists for their deplorable rope sculpture? In the name of tolerance and diversity, it's just as easy to break spirits as it is to break necks.
After all, a noose has never been as terrifying as the lynch mobs behind them.
* * * *
Thursday afternoon, I witnessed one of the most miraculous signs that, yes, even a noose in a tree can bring about just the sort of dialogue a campus community needs.
And not the kind the writers of the official Local U. emails urged with iron fist, either.
With every fence built upon censorship, there are always wild ones in the midst of the herd, looking for new ways to cut through the wires that were put up to protect them. And college students, through some glorious academic instinct, naturally despise attempts to double up their education - especially when that education comes at a price, well, that the tuition checks don't cover.
A black woman and a white woman were standing outside of my library as I stepped out for a quick cigarette. Both students, as per the norm on a soon-to-be Smoke Free Campus, had been waiting for a fellow smoker to exit.
"Girl, please. Somebody needs to raise the roof on this."
"I dunno. I mean, I think it was wrong and all, but-"
One undergraduate was defending policy, was riding on that fence, playing the politically-correct game that often feeds herds in pastures green with mob-rule grasses.
And the other?
Do you think an educated black woman needs an email in the middle of the night to tell her the difference between hate speech and an art project? When was the last time a hate group walked up to a tree, in broad daylight, and hung up a tire swing in protest?
Or wouldn't get annoyed with the fact that in nearly every class, some well-intentioned Caucasian had asked her about how she was doing, as if those art students she walked past Tuesday had actually tried to lynch her? Or wouldn't get annoyed by the fact everybody started screaming about a tree in Jena, Louisiana, before anybody asked the group why they were hanging nooses here?
"So because I'm black, I need a white man to tell me about how offended I am? I can't think for myself?"
You see, in Oxford Fucking Ohio, there are very real hate crimes that happen every day during the school year, ones that don't get histrionic emails sent off late into the night.
Ask the young Chinese-American student who's asked to tutor somebody in math, because, well, All Asians are good at that. Ask the gay undergrad who's been terrified to go on a date with another gay undergrad, because some drunk idiot may start yelling Fuck you, faggot! from a car window. And ask the black students, yes, which offense is greater - artists hanging a noose as part of an exhibit, or the stares young black men get in this town for wearing urban clothing in certain nightclubs?
The Local U. wanted dialogue on the meaning of discrimination.
Well, now, they've got one.
* * * *
I told both women about Dr. M, about the love for the First Amendment he instilled in me when I was an undergrad, about his call to give up riding other people's fences and to walk the path of the straight and narrow back towards the Rule of Law.
I heard Dr. M.'s voice in the back of my own sometimes self-righteous, fence-straddling mind, drowning out the voices on the sides of the fence:
"Let the Law prevail. Put your faith in the ability of the People, and freedom will win, Jason."
Both women agreed that that old bastard Media Law prof sounded like one hell of an educator.
And yes, he was.
* * * *Loving free speech is harder than it looks.
Learning to walk the fence involves learning how to get a look at the big picture, what's really at stake, learning to weigh divine individual rights against the bloodlust of a lynch mob. It's only after looking at the whole spread that one can understand the value of a ranch, free of pastures and fences, bound only by the expanse of the law.
Censorship, sometimes, is indeed justified - some fences are needed to protect things like national security, trade secrets, confidential information, and rights to privacy. Mostly, however, censors pull miles of wire blindly, carve up the fields of nurturing thought for the sake of the few who'd rather just hide in Freedom's barn anyway.
Sure, maybe I'm just insensitive, just ig'nant of historic symbols of hate and injustice and of the need to redouble our efforts to tell students how to express themselves like good little automatons, in need of sensitivity training because I just love what that deplorable, courageous art.
But if a group of art students can't include nooses in an art installation, then librarians sure as hell shouldn't have the right to write about it.
So go ahead a lynch me, too.
Climb up here, up on this fence, and try it.
* * * *
“The most important aspect of freedom of speech is freedom to learn. All education is a continuous dialogue - questions and answers that pursue every problem on the horizon. That is the essence of academic freedom.”- Wild Bill Douglas
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* For the aspiring writers, poets, essayists, painters, sculptors, and screenwriters; for the future political leaders, captains of industry, musicians, doctors, and other innovators at the Local U. And for David Banner, fellow Baton Rouge ex-pat and lover of the First Amendment, for telling the self-appointed leaders of "The African-American Community" to shut the fuck up about censoring art in the name of "decency," for challenging those Happy White Liberals on Capitol Hill who think Democratic suppression is better than Republican suppression, and for, yeah, doing more for Katrina victims than Public Ivy universities.