A Modest Proposal on Freedom of Speech

There are a couple interesting tests of our National love of Freedom of Speech on my radar screen this week. They’re remarkably similar, but my reaction to them is viscerally different, so I thought them worth comparing:

First, there’s the tale of a professor at a University of Wisconsin outpost who got called down for a poster from the sci-fi series, Firefly, emblazoned with the quote:

“You don’t know me, son, so let me explain this to you once: If I ever kill you, you’ll be awake. You’ll be facing me. And you’ll be armed.”

Campus cops removed the poster citing potentially violent interpretations — and did the same with a followup that read:

“Warning: Fascism … Fascism can cause blunt head trauma and/or violent death. Keep fascism away from children and pets.”

This has created a firestorm among the FOS crowd. While I’d typically be lighting the torches for them, I don’t have an ounce of sympathy for the professor in question. But more on that presently…

Meantime, The Onion kicked off its own brouhaha this morning, by publishing a Tweet-by-Tweet “realtime” of their cover story: Congress Takes Group of Schoolchildren Hostage. In addition to creating something over which Journalism Ethicists could hand-wring, it seems they panicked people who don’t realize that The Onion is a satire site — including Capitol Police, who are (not kidding) “investigating the reporting.”

I could save them the trouble. There was none. It was a satire on a satire site that is known for satire and nothing but satire.

So, what’s the difference in these two tales?

I’d argue that it’s something that’s difficult to legislate or Constitutionalize:

Common Sense.

Let’s take the professor — Could a reasonable person take away an implication of violence from his posters? Yes– Unless they knew him well and understood him to be a gentle, jocular fellow. Or maybe the .00000000873% of the population who knows what Firefly is might get it. (I, for the record, do know the show and think it is highly overrated by the several folks who have seen it.)

The fact is, this is a government employee in a government institution who decided to post something controversial on government property. And while his closest disciples may find it hilarious, other students might feel threatened to approach someone in a position of power with such words on their wall.

Turn it around differently: In the extremely unlikely case this fellow or one of his students acted violently in the future, the poster would be pointed at as an ominous foreshadowing.

Did the University administration overreact? Probably. Could they have handled it better? Certainly. Is this guy a first amendment poster child? Hardly.

The second poster was certainly an intentional swipe at his employer — and smacks to me of the many people I encounter who think that their unabashed right to free speech extends to their workplace and to matters that are not of Public Consequence.

They don’t. No Bank of America employee has the right to protest $5 debit card fees on company property; no media company is required to let its competition mock it on its own airwaves; and it is within the realm of any employer — even and especially a public employer — to set and enforce, even arbitrarily, standards about what is or is not appropriate on company property.

Then there’s The Onion. While I think their Twitter posts were a cheap stunt to prop up what was, frankly, one of their weaker cover “stories,” it certainly was within the lines. It certainly doesn’t merit a Federal investigation. It was, as I pointed out above, a satire by a company that specializes in satire, put out through media outlets (print, website, Twitter and Facebook accounts) that it owns. Fair game. Free speech.

That’s what I believe. Mostly. Where I waver is that the phenomenon of people too stupid and uninformed to know that everything the Onion posts (outside of AV reviews) is satire is large enough that it merits a whole website to mock it.

So where’s the line? Firefly’s too fringe, but The Onion is mainstream? I could defend that in just about any circle I travel, but I doubt my Mom knows either. Then again, she’d never find The Onion’s Twitter feed.

Just as that makes my head start spinning with the complexity of our times, I’m reminded that a satire — a satire called A Modest Proposal — was a great influence on our Founding Fathers.

In the 1700s, without the context of the whole InterWebs and 24-hour redundant news reporting to guide them, people got the joke.

You’d think we could do the same.

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