Monday, July 23, 2007

A weak fish

A few weeks ago, Stanley Fish -- my favorite foil at the NY Times -- wrote a controversial column about the Supreme Court's decision in the "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" case. Fish not only defended the majority opinion, which held that certain forms of pro-drug speech by high school students could be banned by school administrators, but argued that students (including those in college) should have no free speech rights at all. Here's Fish summarizing his own argument (from his column today, with my emphasis in bold):

But democracy is a system of political organization, not a model for organizing every aspect of daily life. Democracy gives a particular set of answers to traditional questions in political theory: Who governs? How are the mechanisms of government to be established? By what process can they be altered? What are the safeguards against abuses of government power?

Democracy’s answers to those questions are markedly different from the answers that would be given by the proponents of other systems – theocracy, monarchy, oligarchy, tribalism, feudalism – and central to those answers is the obligation of the state to safeguard the rights (enumerated and unenumerated) of its citizens, including the right to assemble and speak freely. The point at issue is do citizens enjoy those rights in any or all contexts, or do they enjoy them only in those contexts in which they are participating in the political process – voting, speaking in public forums, writing letters to the editor, etc.?

My answer would be the latter, and it is also the Supreme Court’s answer (with some qualifications) in a series of cases stretching from Pickering v. Board of Education (1968) to Garcetti v. Ceballos (2006).

There are a number of possible objections to this argument, but one strikes me as particularly powerful: if educational institutions that exist within a democracy do not embrace the same speech rights within education as they do within the political sphere, won't that weaken the intellectual foundation and support of those speech rights? Put another way, shouldn't democracies practice what they preach by letting students preach too? And if they do not, how will students "emerge" from the ivory tower with any devotion to a right they've never been allowed to exercise?

There are good answers to this argument, I think, but this isn't one of them:

I haven’t the slightest idea, and I am not obligated to have one. It’s not my job.

That's Fish's response. Seriously. That's it. "Sorry, not my job. Figure it out on your own." Look, I like Stanley Fish -- I blog about him frequently because I think he's a smart, unorthodox thinker -- but this is facile. You can't argue that "education has no responsibility to instill democratic virtues, among them a love for free speech" by claiming that "instilling such values isn't part of my job description - I'm supposed to educate." Well, yes, but we're trying to define the scope of that education, Fish! This is what you call a "circular argument," and we've just circled back around to a question that you have yet to answer: will free speech survive if we don't teach free speech?


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