I still remember to this day the feeling I had in class when Professor Jacobs returned the graded midterm exams. This take home exam consisted of only one question. It asked students to evaluate the first amendment rights of a described hypothetical "terrorist" group (this class was pre-9/11 by several years) who had distributed newsletters that contained instructions for bomb making and several passages that could, together, be easily interpreted as a "clear and present danger." I spent hours on this exam and thoroughly enjoyed making careful, solid arguments to send this group to prison for a very long time. I eagerly anticipated a big, fat, red "A" on the front page along with some congratulatory words such as good job or well done. Imagine my surprise, however, when the "A" turned out to be a "C" (and to add insult to injury, included no phrases of praise). As I looked around the room, my expression of disappointment was mirrored on the faces of my cadre we were in shock. We’d studied hard, worked hard, and soaked up every word Dr. Jacobs delivered to us throughout the semester; what had happened? After Dr. Jacobs returned the exams, he resumed his position at the front of the classroom, and with a gleam in his eye, asked the class if we recognized any of the passages that were contained in the terrorist groups newsletter. No one raised their hand. (Good, I was not alone!) Smiling, Dr. Jacobs then told us that we had all argued to incarcerate the group for printing excerpts from the Holy Bible. Yikes! Lesson learned: this is a complicated issue.
Unfortunately (and also fortunately), there are no absolute rights. If the freedom of speech were absolute, it would be easy to assess. Anything we say or write would be protected. Freedom of speech, however, is not an absolute right. As with everything, there are always exceptions. In this case, the need to balance promoting individual freedom and protecting the public good provide the rationale for exceptions. Some of these exceptions include obscenity, libel and slander, and fighting words. In these cases, the right to free speech is not, and should not be protected. For example, few would argue that freedom of speech should protect the creation or distribution of child pornography. Furthermore, most of us would agree that people should not be allowed to make threats to seriously harm or kill someone without sanction. The question, then, is, where should the line separating individual freedom and the public good in a democracy be placed? Can it be argued that some restrictions on freedom of speech are necessary in order to protect democracy? What about the freedom of speech in lodging concerns about government. Isnt that what democracy is all about?
The recent case of Karen Karowski being fired from her job as an administrative assistant for a small town police department for criticizing the boards plans to cut costs described by Diane Garey is disturbing. Dissent is healthy and necessary for democracy, isnt it? Again, there exists a need for balance. One cannot, for example, take speech so far as to commit treason. Liberal Arts curricula in colleges across the country deliver courses in general culture knowledge to students and ask them to think critically and to continually challenge what they read. The notion of academic freedom exists in the classroom to allow for free and open discussion of ideas and events without the fear of repercussion. Academic freedom is so revered in colleges that associations such as the AAUP defend a college professors right to say almost anything in the classroom. However, in the extreme, academic freedom may also protect bad scholarship and harmful speech. This is equally disturbing to me. As liberal arts teachers, we have a duty to our students to provide them with not just information, but good information and to teach them the skills necessary to judge the quality of information themselves.