Thursday, December 17, 2015

Word Wars

I enjoy Star Wars – but am not a super fan. My partner is and we enjoyed all six movies (in episodic order) this week in anticipation for the first showing of Episode VII. Not everybody is a supporter of the George Lucas franchise – and that’s what makes America great. In America you’re supposed to be able to say “Star Wars is great” or “Star Wars sucks” and have it be ok. Spirited debate? Sure. It’s a little thing the founders thought of called the First Amendment. It was so important to them that it is, you know the FIRST thing they agreed on to define the new country. Too bad free speech is becoming a vestige of a galaxy long long ago.

A middle-schooler wearing a t-shirt with a storm trooper holding a gun on it was banned from wearing the shirt. The school is in Texas. Texas! Texas is where you can wear a side arm to Starbucks or sling your shoulder rifle during a spree at Walmart. The ‘zero tolerance’ policy at schools takes no prisoners. Common sense isn’t part of the equation.

Bullying, harassment and intimidation of students by their classmates is a serious problem. According to the Department of Health and Human Services which has compiled results from many studies 70.6% of teens “have seen bullying occurring in their schools – and approximately 30 percent of young people admit to bullying themselves.” Bullying includes both physical in-person and cyber taunts. But is banning speech - and t-shirts - the answer?

Colleges have taken aggressive action on mitigating ‘hate speech.’ According to a Huffington Post article in January 2014 -  59% of higher education institutions actively restrict free speech. There are some extreme examples:
  • The University of Connecticut prohibits people from “actions that intimidate, humiliate, demean persons or groups, or undermine their security of self-esteem.”
  • The University of South Carolina prohibits “’teasing’, ‘ridiculing’ and ‘insulting’”
  • The State University of New York at Oswego (SUNY) suspended a student when (for a school assignment) he asked a hockey coach from an opposing team for thoughts on SUNY’s coach. The suspension came because he said the comments didn’t have to be position – something SUNY interpreted as an attempt to “defame, harass or intimidate” a faculty member.

62% of colleges have speech codes that violate constitutionally protected speech. Where did these schools get the idea to do that? The Departments of Education and Justice mandated a speech code that universities had to adopt to continue to receive their federal funding.

What happens on campus has now spilled into the ‘real’ world. According to Mediaite Newsweek has been threatened with a lawsuit for publishing each side of a rape case – the accuser’s perspective and the defendants. A news organization is being threatened that just by airing an alternative perspective will land them in court. So much for balance. So much for the presumption of innocence.

The Guardian reported in 2013 on the first ever report by the highly respected Committee to Protect Journalists that the “Obama presidency has ushered in a paralyzing climate of fear for journalists and sources alike.”

The article continues:
Six government employees, plus two contractors including Edward Snowden, have been subjects of felony criminal prosecutions since 2009 under the 1917 Espionage Act, accused of leaking classified information to the press—compared with a total of three such prosecutions in all previous U.S. administrations. Still more criminal investigations into leaks are under way. Reporters' phone logs and e-mails were secretly subpoenaed and seized by the Justice Department in two of the investigations, and a Fox News reporter was accused in an affidavit for one of those subpoenas of being 'an aider, abettor and/or conspirator' of an indicted leak defendant, exposing him to possible prosecution for doing his job as a journalist. In another leak case, a New York Times reporter has been ordered to testify against a defendant or go to jail.

Donald Trump makes headlines saying outrageous things. People are paying attention. I think he’s spewing forth bile and proposals that are absurd in their simplicity and would never see the light of day in the event he did take the Oval Office. And I’ll fight for his right to say his nonsense.

Offensive speech pisses people off. It offends. That’s what it does. That’s a good thing in a democracy. It’s good to be annoyed.

Donald Trump’s fascist statements led to a social media burst recently – Facebook users were able to see who of their friends were ‘following’ the real-estate-mogul-reality-star-GOP-candidate. You could then ‘unfriend’ those folks – under the presumption that they were following the man because they supported him. The result is that people are filtering out more and more of what they disagree with, making for a less rounded and less informed people.

The impact of the speech restrictions from Middle School to College has had an impact. The majority of millennials (58%) are ok with restricting speech according to research by the Pew Foundation. Americans overall (95%) believe its important to be able to criticize the government but only 67% agree that speech should be free to criticize groups and others. In other words: 1/3rd of Americans think the First Amendment isn't needed. Now that's terrifying.

Restricting expression is restricting thought. It has to stop. It has to. Let’s hope the Force is with us all.

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