Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog


with 4 comments

It’s the kind of thing you can’t believe you actually did, because nobody ever does it.   It’s a sitcom cliche.

I was in the grocery store yesterday afternoon. Greg, my younger son, was with me, and he had the cart.  I was looking for The Turkey, and  I’d finally found my way to the bin with the frozen Butterballs in it.  And  I thought  I was out of luck again, because they all looked small.

And then  I saw it.

It was huge, well over twenty pounds, and it was, of course, sitting at the very bottom of the pile. 

So I  reached in and started to tug the thing out by its netting.   I had a hard time getting it to move.  It budged, and I pulled some more.  The pile of frozen turkeys was right next to a pile of frozen turkey breasts, with no divider between them.  When  I tugged on my turkey, the turkey breasts moved.

Finally, I got so damned tired, I gave the thing a big yank.   It came out, sending several of the small frozen turkey breasts leaping through the freezer door and onto the floor around my feet.

Except for one, which landed on my left foot.

Kerblam.   Just like that.

Enormous bruise.  Swelling to the size of a large grapefruit by dinner.  Ice packs.

I did not, fortunately, break anything.  But I’m supposed to “stay off it for a few days.”  In the run up to Thanksgiving.

Anyway, part of me wants to address Cheryl’s comment about positive rights, but  I’m a bit stymied by the fact that I don’t know the case she’s referring to.  I  do know that there are no positive rights in the US Constitution, and there is most certainly no “right to education.”   Some of the STATE constitutions have provisions of that sort, but they’re another story.  

The education issues that have been decided in our SCOTUS have been decided mostly on the basis of the fourteenth amendment–not even in the bill of rights to begin with–which guarantees equal treatment under the law.  But without knowing what the case was, and whether it was federal or state, and what state, etc, I don’t know how to figure out what happened.

What I can address is both John’s contention that things should be decided by legislatures, and  Robert’s that the world is getting worse because there are speech codes on college campuses and that hasn’t made any of them a pariah.

First, as to deciding things by legislative action–some things, yes, but  I think there are some things legislatures should not be allowed to make laws about, ever.  This was not at issue in the Navy sonar case.  In that case, the question was what the Constitution said should take precedent–laws enacted by  Congress or orders of the Commander in  Chief.  Since SCOTUS’s primary job is to tell us what the  Constitution says, it seems entirely fitting to me that, in a case where the wording was murky, they should untangle it.

This is precisely not a job for the legislature, or for the Commander in Chief, because both have a conflict of interest in seeing that the interpretation goes their way.

Robert’s case of campus speech codes, however, does speak to what I’m talking about here, about areas where the legislature should not be allowed to have any say at all.

The way Robert’s post is worded seems to assume that there was once a time when universities upheld free speech on their campuses, and that it is only recently (the past, say, forty years) when they have indulged in campus censorship.

But this is not true, and it has never been true.  And it’s not just universities.  Free speech may be a core Western value-actually, a core Anglophone value–but it isn’t that because the populations of Western countries have ever, at any time, actually agreed with it.

In fact, dig a little, and you’ll find that even Americans, who are more inclined to free speech than almost anybody else, have pretty much hated the idea from off.  Nor has there ever been a time when there has been no officially sanctioned censorship anywhere, or where universities have not engaged in it, or where the battle could be assumed to be won, or without the need of lawsuits to help protect it.

From the Alien and Sedition Acts until now, Americans have been of the “I agree with free speech, but some things go too far” persuasion.  Go look at any poll that asks the question, and you’ll find that the vast majority of Americans think that it ought to be illegal to say bad things about somebody else’s religion. 

And that’s not all they think should be censored.  Our public schools–including high schools–are battlegrounds every year.   The right wants to ban Catcher in the Rye, Heather Has Two Mommies, and the Harry  Potter novels.   The left wants to ban Huckleberry Finn and Of Pandas and People.

I’m not talking about instructional materials here, what will be taught in the classroom.   I’m talking about the mere existence of certain books in school libraries.  No compromises are possible.   We’ll put the book behind the librarian’s desk and she’ll only give it out to children whose parents have signed a permission slip allowing them to have it?   Nope.  Unacceptable.  Get that book out of the library altogether.

Before there were campus speech codes, there were campus loyalty oaths–most American colleges and universities banned Communists from teaching and banned teachers from advocating Communist ideas not only during the McCarthy hysteria but well into the Sixties and Seventies.  When I started teaching at Robert’s alma mater–well into the Seventies–I was required to sign a loyalty oath promising that I was not only true to the  US, but that  I was not and had never been a member of the Communist Party. 

Late Seventies.  Think about it.

Free speech has never been popular because it is counterintuitive.  It demands that we allow ideas that are in fact, objectively, wrong and bad.  It also, of course, demands that we allow ideas that we only think are wrong or bad, but it’s often hard to distinguish which is which in the heat of the moment. 

Andrew Comstock didn’t want to pass obscenity laws to keep pornography out of the mails.  He wanted to keep information about birth control out of the mails.  Various groups of people spend a lot of time trying to find a way to shut down the NAMBLA  web site.  One of the “drug czars” suggested that Congress should make it a drug offense to write or speak in favor of legalization, because talk like that was definitely convincing some people that it was all right to take drugs.

Left, right, center, it doesn’t matter. Most people do not accept the idea of free speech and they never have.  There was never a time when America in particular or the West in general supported freedom of speech and the press in any significant numbers.  

What most people support is an idea that was thrown up by the nineteenth century Catholic Church and that has since been taken up enthusiastically by various Muslim organizations in Egypt and elsewhere: freedom of speech is the right to speak the truth.  It is not the right to speak error.  Error has no rights. 

In other words, freedom of speech means being allowed to say stuff they agree with, but stuff the consider is wrong can be banned, because nobody has the right to say things that are wrong, or lies.  You can find this formulation in something called the Cairo Declaration, which was an attempt by Islamic countries and organizations to put out something to counter the US Bill of Rights and other statements of rights.  The Cairo Declaration is here:


and it’s Article 22 you’re looking at.

Free speech is popular with such a small percentage of human beings, that the wonder of the US  is the fact that we’ve keep it going to such an extent for so long. And campus speech codes notwithstanding,  Americans are freer in what they can say and print now than they have been at any point in their history.  Ever.

As to the universties in the present moment, two things: 

First, to the extent that these are private entities, the state has no right to tell them what speech they may or may not allow.  Part of the right of freedom of speech and the press, of freedom of conscience and expression, consists in the right to determine what speech you will allow on your own property.  If your opponent can take over part of your lawn to promote a candidate or idea your despise, your freedom of expression has been significantly curtailed.

Which is why both Robert and I have no use whatsoever for the “Fairness Doctrine.” 

Second, the courts have in fact been much better about protecting the freedom of speech and press of conservative students and faculty on today’s public university campuses than they were about protecting the same for liberal and leftist students and professors in the Fifties.  They’ve even done a credible job in some private university cases–I’m thinking of the Dartmouth wars here–where the university’s own mission statement has been used to provide grounds for lawsuts by conservative students against university attempts to suppress alternative newspapers and speakers.

We’re never going to get to the point where most people are willing to accept freedom of speech in its full sense.  It’s never happened and it never will.  That’s what we need the Bill of Rights for.

And I do not believe that human nature changes.  I think we’re going to need a Bill of Rights, and advocacy organizations to file lawsuits under it, pretty much forever.

Written by janeh

November 25th, 2008 at 6:30 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Sitcom'

Subscribe to comments with RSS or TrackBack to 'Sitcom'.

  1. I hope your foot heals quickly. You gotta watch those dangerous birds!

    “Anyway, part of me wants to address Cheryl’s comment about positive rights, but I’m a bit stymied by the fact that I don’t know the case she’s referring to. I do know that there are no positive rights in the US Constitution, and there is most certainly no “right to education.” Some of the STATE constitutions have provisions of that sort, but they’re another story.”

    I’m not referring to a court case, or about state constitutions (I don’t think I was ever really aware that states (as in US states, not nation states) had constitutions. The example I gave, probably a poor one because it was strictly local and happened some years back so I’m certainly the only person on this blog who knows about it, never went to court. I don’t know if it could have done so. We have had court cases on the right to denominational education (the church in question lost) and the right to education in French (cases generally won by the Francophones, and everyone gets to squabble over what ‘where numbers permit’ means).

    I was trying use that example to illustrate a process by which some people and groups try to change society by defining some usually quite worthy things as rights in and of themselves, and then, instead of lobbying their fellow-citizens to vote for politicians who will put the desired thing into law, do an end-run around them and go to the courts to get what they want. You want a certain form of education, marriage, health care (eg abortion & euthanasia/assisted suicide)? Call it a right, and if people object, sue for it to be recognized as a right.

    This often doesn’t work, at least in Canada, which I suppose is some consolation, but I don’t think it’s a very useful form of political action. Well, not if you want people to actually support your ideas, instead of forcing them on the others.

    I’ve run into the ‘right to be wrong’ idea, though. It’s astonishing how many people – and they aren’t all Muslims – don’t realize that if you have freedom of action or thought or speech, you must also have freedom to do, think or say things just about everyone else thinks is wrong.


    25 Nov 08 at 7:55 am

  2. Jane, welcome to Murphy’s Law! The bright side is that now you will not feel badly about falling asleep in a comfortable chair.

    No comments on the rest of the article. It requires too much knowledge of what is happening in the US. The “Dartmouth Wars” means nothing to me.


    25 Nov 08 at 1:29 pm

  3. As far as I know, the loyalty oaths were required by state and federal law. The political correctness wars are self inflicted by the universities.


    25 Nov 08 at 9:36 pm

  4. I don’t see the point of loyalty oaths – or if I do, I find them offensive.

    I mean, if I’m an honest person, why am I being insulted by being forced to take an oath? And if I’m a dishonest person, I won’t mind making a false oath.

    Actually, I have taken something that could be considered a loyalty oath, but it didn’t involve swearing to having or not having any particular political views, I just promised not to reveal anything confidential I learned in connection with a job I once had. That seems much more reasonable than swearing that I’m not a Communist. That didn’t bother me as much as taking oaths about more political matters – or even that ritual recitation Americans do in school.


    26 Nov 08 at 8:15 am

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Bad Behavior has blocked 737 access attempts in the last 7 days.