Doninger, Free Speech, and Borders

Wednesday, March 5th, 2008

Reportage from the Second Curcuit Court of Appeals is coming in on the Avery Doninger case, an item often in the post space here. This case is about relationships. These relationships should not be overcomplicated.

It calls for a rethinking by school administrators of their role in public discourse. It’s not about whether a student can or cannot call their school principles names on a weblog. If a student does call their teacher or principle an asshole, then this provides an opportunity for the teacher or the principle to engage: “Why are you calling me an asshole?” That’s a starting point. On Twitter, I asked a question about Facebook semiotics. This was a serious question. On Facebook, I have students in my course who have added me as a friend, a term that has numerous meanings. These students have made the choice to add me to their lists. I typically accept their call. But this is potentially dangerous for them. Soon, they may want to retract because part of my role as instructor is to evaluate their performance.

But the student may also evaluate mine. Is it proper for a student on Facebook or in their own weblog to call me an asshole? Sure. Would my feelings be hurt? Sure. Honestly, who “wants” to be called an asshole without compensation? But it would provide me an opportunity. “Why are you calling me an asshole when I basically performed my function: which was to evaluate your performance? This is a function the student has agreed to in their role as someone who’s basically asked and paid for it. The opportunity comes with the response: “Why did you claim that I used too many generalizations or did not back up my conclusions about Romanticism with evidence from the texts” or “I thought I had supplied sufficient logic yet you claimed that paragraph 3 needed development.” These questions I can deal with, in private or in public.

People generally know that what they say on Facebook is public within the Facebook context. Same goes for the weblog.

The Doninger case is a waste of litigation space: can we not engage each other in real disputation? Again, I make a call. Administrators should not be out to enforce boundaries. They should have engaged the student in her comment space. They should have made their case in public using their own fingers. That’s what keyboards are for. For practicing classical speech! This is what I mean:

The school officials’ attorney, Thomas R. Gerarde, argued that the Internet has fundamentally changed students’ ability to communicate, allowing them to reach hundreds of people at a time. If a student leader makes offensive comments about the school on the Internet, the school should have the right to act, said Gerarde, who represents Mills Principal Karissa Niehoff and former Region 10 Superintendent Paula Schwartz. “We shouldn’t be required to just swallow it,” he said.

I disagree that the internet “has fundamentally changed students’ ability to communicate.” The same cause and effect relationship could have resulted from a slip of paper passed around in the cafeteria. Should the school have the right to act? Please: why is this not fallacious in that Gerarde’s assertion assumed a narrow definition of “act.” It did have the right to act in all kinds of ways. Officials have the right to comment on a student’s weblog now, at this moment, to ask simple questions: “Yes, we did make the decision to ‘Cancel’ (record correction provided by Andy Thibault [thanks, Andy]) Jamfest. Why does this make us douchbags?

P.S.: Correction added.


2 responses to “Doninger, Free Speech, and Borders”

  1. gibb says:

    Agree wholeheartedly. The thinking these days seems to be that if someone says or does something you don’t like, let’s get the judicial system to make a law against it. Or for it. Or whatever, but let’s grow government while grabbing rights away from underling citizens and make the lawyers rich all in one shot.

    To my mind, just one more step in layering walls between individuals and their manner of communication. Whatever happened to sticks and stones? And why is confrontation between individuals a sin while giving that right to government and special focus groups an okay thing? Why? Because as individuals, with every generation, we’re turning into wimps who prefer to take no responsibility for our own individual actions.

    Yes, Miss Doninger had a right to say it (even being stupid is a God-given right–and I’m not saying that she was/is) and the school administration has the right to question her. And, I suppose the lawyers have a right to jump in and make some money off it. Ah, the new cycle of life.