On Decency & Common Sense

I know it when I see it.

· · · · ·

In 1964, as the Supreme Court presided over the landmark obscenity case Jacobellis v. Ohio, Justice Potter Stewart immortalized himself with the above statement. While painted as a fundamentally silly thing to say (Stewart was hounded for years for sounding like the supreme arbiter of decency), the phrase stresses an underlying truth regarding expression; namely, that articulating what is accepted is an entirely subjective venture.

Majority interests have pummeled the First Amendment for years with restrictive and ridiculous countermeasures. I’m not talking about Clear and Present Danger statutes, either; I’m talking about the fundamental right to be heard.

Being no stranger to absurd laws and political retardation, I was nonetheless shocked and saddened to read about several proposed bills that would further punish open minds at a time when thought control is becoming more commonplace. In Florida, lawmakers are pushing to enact a law that would make it possible for a college student to sue his professor if they have dissenting opinions.

On the floor of the House of Representatives, meanwhile, zealot F. James Sensenbrenner III (R-WI) wants to put people in prison as a means of enforcing “indecency.”

“I’d prefer using the criminal process rather than the regulatory process,” Sensenbrenner told entertainment industry executives last week.

Outstanding. After we force the bankrupt faculty of our nation’s universities into debtor’s prisons, that’ll leave room in the gulag for all the free speech crazies who preach indecent values such as honoring the Bill of Rights!

· · · · ·

On Common Sense

The hilariously and inappropriately named “Academic Freedom Bill of Rights” (H837) has been drafted by a partisan Republican cabal seeking to — I kid you not — stamp out “leftist totalitarianism” by “dictator professors” in Florida universities. Apparently Dennis Baxley, the bill’s sponsor, feels the next Che Guevara is brewing in a Tallahassee classroom and only his righteous crusade can quash immoral and intolerable differences of opinion.

Baxley further likened typical college courses to a dictator communicating his or her “platform to indoctrinate the next generation with their own views.” His bill would exempt penalty of students for having a different belief from their professor and impresses on faculty to present alternative theories that break from the teacher’s own views.

This sounds perfectly reasonable in a reasonable world; most college graduates can nod their heads and remember a professor they disagreed with. I personally had one course where I butted heads with faculty; however, I never felt like I needed to bury my own opinion on the topic at hand because it could affect my grade.

There are several reasons for this. First, I signed up for the class. It wasn’t thrust upon me; it was an elective that interested me precisely because it would invoke a steady stream of debate from several sides. Second, I wasn’t a spineless pseudo-student that kowtowed to the syllabus like a subjugated prisoner. Last and most important, I understood that as the professor is another human being, and that as we are not linked in some drone-like thought collective it was entirely possible that we might not see eye to eye on every facet of life.

Are there rabid, firebrand educators out there? Absolutely, and if their classroom is a noxious and harmful environment a university has every right to fire them — provided the case is just (in the cases of Ward Churchill and Joseph Massad, it often is not). But enacting a law giving students the right to sue their professor over ideological differences? That’s just insanity.

H837 would lock monies away from teaching as any universities under the bill’s umbrella begin to prepare for the eventual onslaught of frivolous lawsuits. “This is a horrible step,” said Representative Dan Gelber of Miami Beach. “Universities will have to hire lawyers so our curricula can be decided by judges in courtrooms. Professors might have to pay court costs — even if they win — from their own pockets. This is not an innocent piece of legislation.”

Even more frightening is the vagueness of the law. Under H837, an astronomy professor who teaches the spherical nature of the earth can be brought to court because one of their students believes it is flat. Baxley cites an example whereby a student should sue if he believes in Intelligent Design (also known as Creationism) and his professor — even one teaching biology — doesn’t pander to such a ridiculous alternative.

“Some professors say, ˜Evolution is a fact,'” he continued. “˜I don’t want to hear about Intelligent Design, and if you don’t like it, there’s the door.'” This is a bill that punishes truth and those who speak it while upholding religious dogma.

It’s also a stepping stone for obnoxious, lazy students to skirt responsibility yet again while glutting the courts with baseless and stupid litigation. H837 is a joke and an embarrassment; it isn’t fit to bear the name Bill of Rights.

On Decency

Speaking of the Bill of Rights, the First Amendment will soon be joining the Second, Fourth, Fifth and Sixth on the funeral pyre of freedom. While free speech rights have been poked and prodded since the founding of the Republic, Rep. Sensenbrenner’s proposal to criminally prosecute indecency statutes paves the way for pure censorship.

“Decency” is in the eye of the beholder. There are few things in my opinion that are shocking or indecent (President Bush’s lies notwithstanding); certainly if someone wants to babble about an issue they should be entitled to do so. Silencing someone with the threat of legal prosecution only makes people wonder why the government is trying to shut them up in the first place.

I’ve mainly heard about this issue while listening to the Howard Stern Radio Show. While the popular talk show host is undoubtedly sensationalizing it by personalizing the FCC’s attacks on his broadcast, it’s hard not to feel frightened by a public servant hired by the people dedicated to punishing them for offending someone else. Sensenbrenner’s vagueness in stipulating how the law would work only adds to the unease.

Here’s an idea: instead of conforming the United States to the old standards of communist Russia, let’s let people say what’s on their minds. If they have an audience, it means people want to hear the message. If no one shows up to listen to someone speak, at least the speaker has the chance to communicate.

Does this lead to people potentially becoming offended by an errant comment? Possibly. But the United States is not supposed to clamp down on freedoms because someone might take offense. One man’s hate speech is another’s love letter.

As Ben Franklin said, “People who are willing to give up freedom for the sake of short-term security, deserve neither freedom nor security.” Securing one’s mind from a nebulous thing like indecency will only resort in the loss of freedom to express, the freedom to think. When will the government’s fascination with policing thought come to an end? When we fight back against our own tyranny. I don’t know when people will finally become angry enough to do so, but as Justice Stewart said, I’ll know it when I see it.