Free Speech Is Free, Messy, and Uncomfortable (Updated)

Here are a few things from the last week or so:
--At Florida Atlantic University, James Tracy, a tenured professor, was served notice that the university is seeking to fire him. Tracy is committed to exposing what he thinks are hoaxes, and that includes declaring and insisting that the massacre of mostly little kids at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, didn't happen and was just a drill that was used to promote gun control. He even insists that the dead children never existed.

--At Wheaton College, an evangelical Christian school in Illinois, Professor Larycia Hawkins was suspended through the spring semester. A Christian herself, she started wearing a hijab to express her unity with Muslims. She also declared on Facebook that "I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God." She was suspended not for the hijab-wearing, but for saying that the Muslim god is as big as the Christian one.

--In Bowling Green, Ohio, which is a cute college town, Jan Larson McLaughlin, the editor of the Sentinel-Tribune daily newspaper, was fired after 31 years of working at the paper for "insubordination." She wrote an editorial that supported mild gun control, and she called out the Buckeye Firearms Association for publishing the names and email addresses of Bowling Green State University faculty who wrote to their legislator to convince him to vote against a campus concealed carry bill. (He voted for it.) The publisher of the Sentinel-Tribune killed the editorial and had McLaughlin escorted from the building.

--At the University of Missouri, the Genocide Awareness Project was set-up by the anti-abortion group that sponsors it. The display shows photos of aborted fetuses and compares a legal medical procedure to actual genocides, like the Holocaust. This upset the Jewish Student Organization at Mizzou, which asked people to submit Bias Incident Reports because "the display is triggering to many groups and negatively affects the learning environment for all students."

Chances are that at least one of those things made you feel like justice was or is being done (the easy money is on the Sandy Hook truther douchehole). Chances are that one of them pissed you off totally, and you felt that an injustice is being committed. You could rationally argue that some things are more hurtful than others. You could rationally state that it's wrong to lump these together. But the Rude Pundit thinks they all belong in one pile.

What each of them have in common, of course, is that they all relate in some way to freedom of speech. Now, obviously, no one's First Amendment rights are being taken away. The government is not making a law that abridges speech here (although you could perhaps argue that if Mizzou takes down the display or FAU fires Tracy, that's the government, in the form of public universities, taking action on speech). So we're talking a vaguer, more expansive notion of free speech and its potential limitations.

And that's where it gets rough. Because, yeah, we can all agree that James Tracy is a friggin' nutzoid conspiracy theorist. And he loses any sympathy when he compares himself to "the 1960s women and racial minorities who secured a toehold in the academy [who] used their tenure to address controversial topics that drew fire from conservative administrators and trustees." But if he's doing his job, which he seems to be (and students keep taking him), and he's just writing provocative, quite insane work, even work that crosses a line into corrosive and cruel, well, it's still part of academic freedom. You are allowed to go in whatever batshit direction you want. And, trust the Rude Pundit on this one, campuses are filled with people researching all kinds of odious crap.

Because, see, the moment you say that Tracy should be fired is the moment that you have to be okay with the suspension of Prof. Hawkins and the firing of McLaughlin. All they did was speak or write something that someone found offensive or too confrontational. It just so happens that it might not be something you personally find offensive or overly confrontational.

Sure, sure, you can also counter with a capitalist argument that boils down to "Well, them's the breaks when you piss off the boss," but we're talking about the media and the university, two places where ideas and speech ought to be treated as sacrosanct. If, as an editor, you have to fear for your job because you're not pleasing your masters (and not even given a chance to revise), then what fucking use is the paper you work for? If you're on a college campus and you're not allowed to deal with sometimes truly repellent ideas, then you're just putting your head in the sand.

That's what brings this whole post around to the Mizzou thing. The implication of the JSO letter is that the Holocaust is absolutely off-limits as a metaphor or point of comparison (which, to be fair, is something that Elie Wiesel said). The JSO throws around the word "triggering" like it has some kind of magic attached to it, which, sadly, it probably does, the magical ability to shut down transgression. Look, the Genocide Awareness Project is terrible, juvenile bullshit, and the abortion comparison is blatantly exploitative. So what? Put up a better display. Have a protest. Use speech, not silencing, to fight speech.

The point here is that once you decide that something is unspeakable or unseeable, if you are saying what's best for everyone, then you are allowing that others can make that decision for you, too.

Update: Several readers have pointed out that Tracy is also accused of harassing the families of Sandy Hook victims. If true, fuck that guy. Hard.