November 3, 2007

The "Flag-Burning Professor" - This May Surprise You

Hatched by Dafydd

Drudge linked a provocative article from the Bangor Daily News today; the opening paragraph is certainly an attention grabber:

A University of Maine student alleges her former professor offered extra credit to class members if they burned the American flag or the U.S. Constitution or were arrested defending free speech.

On the first day of class, associate professor Paul Grosswiler offered the credit to members of his History of Mass Communications class, according to sophomore Rebekah McDade. Disturbed by the comment, McDade dropped the class and intends to take the course again next semester with a different professor.

Now, I must confess that I always begin reading such articles in a conflicted state of mind:

  • I have a natural skepticism about extreme claims like this, stemming from the fact that I have a natural, inborn skepticism about, well, everything;
  • I have learnt from bitter experience over the aeons that an awful lot of stories about acrid academia that are too insane to be true -- turn out to be true.

So I typically read in a state of trepidation, because whichever way it goes, one of my deep and cherished beliefs will be crushed. Usually I just shy away and pretend I read it, so I can impress people, but really just move my eyes back and forth and think about England.

But I actually read this one; and despite the fact that at least one other student, Kathleen Dame, possibly two (an unnamed "second student"), also say they think Prof. Grosswiler offered extra credit for such, I actually find I believe the professor himself instead:

In an e-mail responding to a request for comment from the Bangor Daily News on Friday, Grosswiler said he thought McDade misunderstood the class discussion, which was intended to elicit thought about the First Amendment. He said he has held this same discussion for years without incident.

"I don’t intend for students to burn either the Constitution or the flag, and over the years hundreds of students have understood that," Grosswiler wrote.

The thing is, I can easily see how a discussion could seem clear one way to Grosswiler and equally clear the opposite way to McDade and Dame... even in a fairly precise language like English, miscommunication is the norm, not the exception.

Suppose Grosswiler said something like this. I am just now making this up; this doesn't come from any transcript, and I have no idea what he actually said -- save only that I'm sure it was less persuasive and brilliant than my own fantasy lecture below. I only offer this monologue as an illuminating "f'rinstance":

Class, I don't want you just sitting back, listening to the lecture, nodding, and regurgitating what I said. I want you to really understand how important freedom of speech is... and how sometimes you must stand up and protect it, even if it means suffering the consequences.

Our Founding Fathers understood that; when Patrick Henry said "Give me liberty or give me death," at the Virginia Convention of 1775, he wasn't being metaphorical -- he meant it quite literally. The British considered what he said about liberty to be treason and sedition, which were both capital offenses in colonial America.

Over the years, people have chosen many methods of fighting to preserve freedom of speech: Back when flag-burning against the law, many people believed the prohibition, whether state or federal, violated the fundamental liberty of freedom of speech. The most obvious way to protest was by burning the flag and getting themselves arrested; in court, they argued their cases, and eventually they won: The Supreme Court overturned the laws against flag burning.

(Other protesters only burnt the Constitution, which wasn't illegal to do; they made the same point but didn't want to risk jail time.)

Through the centuries, people have been jailed, flogged, tortured, and hanged trying to preserve the precious freedoms of speech, assembly, and the press; and that's what this communications class is about. I want you to experience this material, not just read about it. I want you to go out there and demonstrate a committment to our American liberties, which so many brave men and even women have fought and died to preserve.

Therefore, I give extra credit to students who don't just swallow what I say and spit it out onto a test paper, but actually demonstrate their understanding of the importance of speech and a free press by going out and acting on that understanding.

I don't care what approach you take, whether it's giving a speech, writing an article, or storming the Bastille. You can burn the flag or the Constitution, or you can organize a protest against Hugo Chavez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- but do something.

And don't think you can get away with an insincere gesture that's only meant to shock and offend. Whatever you do, it must sincerely come from your heart... and believe me, after twenty years in higher education, you can't fool me: I'll know if you're just faking it, and you won't get any credit.

So whatever you choose to do, go out and show me that you really understand the importance of our essential liberties -- and you'll get extra credit. But much more important, you'll understand just a bit of what so many people have suffered for our vital -- and very American -- freedom.

Yes, I can easily picture it. Of course, Grosswiler wouldn't be as eloquent as I; on the other hand, he would know how to spell "commitment."

Such a speech might easily be misinterpreted by hysterical females (or by hysterical males, of course; I just like scandalizing the proto-feminists) as "I'll give you extra credit for burning the flag." But it would very likely also be true that no student has ever decided to burn the flag to get extra credit... or that maybe someone did, but Grosswiler thought it was completely insincere, and he denied the credit.

In any event, he is absolutely right that there was a whole freedom-of-speech crisis over flag burning, and the Supreme Court did resolve it by ruling that burning the flag was protected speech -- Texas v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397 (1989); U.S. v. Eichman, 496 U.S. 310 (1990). And for once, I agree with the Court's expansion of liberties; I'm not one of those who believes that "speech" means only the verbal conveyance of ideas. The very fact, as argued by those supporting the anti-flag desecration constitutional amendment, that the American flag is a cherished national symbol means that burning it is a very effective way to demonstrate hatred of America -- or at least hatred of something the firebug thinks America is doing. There is almost no getting around the fact that this is a clear political message.

Of course, so is giving money to a political campaign; the Court disgraced itself when it upheld McCain-Feingold, the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002. The decision was 5-4 on the most odious provisions, and goofy Justice Sandra Day O'Connor was in the majority, joining liberal Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, John Paul Stevens, and David Souter.

I strongly believe that if the case were decided under today's Court, with Justice Samuel Alito instead of Sandra Day O'Connor, the BCRA would be struck down. As evidence, look at the decision in Federal Election Commission v. Wisconsin Right to Life, Inc., 551 U.S. (2007), where Chief Justice John Roberts' harsh opinion striking down some provisions of the BCRA (related to issue ads within 30 or 60 days of an election) and expressing contempt for campaign finance regulation was joined by Justice Alito. Alas, O'Connor was still on the Court in 2003, else we would live in a freer society.

(However, I would not go so far as to say everything, including stripping and lap dances, is protected speech, however; I would look at intent, how it's exercised, and whether others were allowed their own freedom of speech -- including the freedom not to listen to your speech. Thus, if you walk into a church during services and take off all your clothes to protest the Iraq war, I say you should be arrested: First, there is no rational connection between nudity and pacifism; second, you interfered with other people's liberties -- both freedom of religious worship, obviously, but also freedom of speech... which includes the freedom not to experience someone else's "speech.")

I appear to have wandered far afield, but it's a false apparition: What constitutes "speech" is at the very heart of this controversy. Judging solely from what I read in the Bangor Daily News article, I suspect this is more or less what Professor Grosswiler was trying to convey... albeit clumsily, since he's sure to be a liberal.

I don't think he was seriously encouraging college brats to go out and burn the flag or Constitution. I think McDade overreacted; a partisan group (The Leadership Institute, which I would probably join if I were the joining sort) seized the opportunity to make hay while the iron was hot; and a newspaper saw a chance for a sensational headline.

Ergo, I wanted to put my $58,712.16 worth in before the chorus of conservatives attacking poor Prof. Grosswiler became deafening.

Hatched by Dafydd on this day, November 3, 2007, at the time of 4:10 PM

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The following hissed in response by: BarbaraS

I usually agree with you on most subjects but I disagree with your entire article this time. I don't know why you are giving a pass to this professor when other liberal professors and teachers have done and said so much worse. And I completely disagree with the court's decision about flag burning. They might look upon this as free speech but they are violating my free speech in some respects by making me watch such egregious behavior by burning something that I respect and revere. This decision was the start of the slippery slope that allowed liberals to trash and burn not only the flag but also the constitution and the country itself. They feel there is no limit to THEIR free speech but no one in opposition to their beliefs should be allowed this same right. Liberal academia has shown time and time again that they hate and disrespect this country. But it is all false rhetoric. You don't see any of them moving to other countries to escape what they think is a horrible country.

The above hissed in response by: BarbaraS [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 3, 2007 6:38 PM

The following hissed in response by: AMR

I would have to know more about the professor and have seen an interview with former students of his who have graduated to accept the students’ story. While I agree with the flag burning being a legal demonstration of free speech, I believe I would suffer the consequences of stopping someone from doing so as a veteran and patriotic American. But food for thought is that in my state a nasty judge could sentence you up to 10 years in prison if convicted. Jury nullification would be nice, but at my age three squares a day and roof over your head may be better than the old folks’ home.

The above hissed in response by: AMR [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 4, 2007 8:49 PM

The following hissed in response by: Fritz

While I don't know enough to comment about Prof. Grosswiler since I did not hear him myself, the concept of free speech is one I do understand and feel strongly about. Unlike Barbara S. I understand that in order for me to have free speech I have to accord that right to people who say things with which I disagree, and that includes the burning of flags or copies of the Constitution. She seems to have made the mistake of equating being offended by what someone says as violating her free speech rights.

I would also say that political correctness is our biggest threat to freedom of speech. From what started out as simple courtesy, political correctness has turned into a form of terrorism. Should you commit the terrible offense of saying something which can be construed as being derogatory to certain groups immediately brands you as a hate monger. Not only that, the ones branding you do not have to prove that you meant your remarks in the way they interpreted them, only that they felt you meant it that way and I cite Eden Jacobowitz and Larry Summers as proof of that. You have no defense, or even right to a defense in their minds. You are guilty because they said so. As you point out, many times people misunderstand what was said or meant, but the political correctness crowd cares nothing about that and cares only if they can advance their political beliefs regardless of the truth of the matter. To be honest, I'm getting very tired of the political correctness crowd being allowed to control what can be said. I am even more tired of the fact that their rules are never applied uniformly and that certain groups get a pass no matter how egregious their words or deeds.

The above hissed in response by: Fritz [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 4, 2007 9:55 PM

The following hissed in response by: LarryD

Point 1. The law (a least in the past) has recognized the concept of "fighting words", i.e., speech can be so provocative as to instigate fights and such should not be given an automatic free pass.

Point 2. Speech is something you do with words. Extending to actions too easily allows "speech" that is physically intimidating.

Point 3. The Left undermined manners and civility, and then replaced them with "political correctness". You think that wasn't part of their agenda all along, to control what we say, and then think? It's past time to take away that verbal bludgeon, and call them for the bigots they are.

The above hissed in response by: LarryD [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 5, 2007 1:54 PM

The following hissed in response by: Stephen Macklin

I got a degree in Journalism from the University of Maine in 1985. At that time Grosswiller was a part time instructor. He was a copy editor at the Bangor Daily News.

He was always very much a liberal though in those days, perhaps due to lack of tenure, he kept politics out of the classroom for the most part.

Obviously I don't know what he is like a a tenured professor 20+ years later but I do know that none of what I have read about this story comes as much of a surprise.

The above hissed in response by: Stephen Macklin [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 5, 2007 1:59 PM

The following hissed in response by: FredTownWard

I don't know enough to say whether Professor Grosswiler crossed a line here or not, but I have to disagree with you about one thing, Dafydd: IMHO the SCOTUS made a VERY serious mistake in equating "action" with "speech". It is pretty darn obvious why "speech" needs to be protected with near absoluteness, but it is far less clear that "action" needs to be similarly protected, and if it does, then the Constitution should be AMENDED not red-penciled by a bunch of unelected know-it-alls. Frankly, as in the dispute over eminent domain, I believe that political "action" should be subject to local legal control so as to better reflect the will of the people. If you don't like the local laws, you should be able to replace the idiots with a new set of idiots NOT have to wait for an egomaniacal philosopher-king to die in order to change such a law.

It is arguably never NECESSARY to hold a march or a protest, so if you want to do so, there is nothing wrong IMHO with requiring you to get a permit for it, as long as said permits are issued to all and sundry. And while we are at it, there is NO SUCH THING as a political point that requires nudity or obscenity as an argument. Finally, anyone who wishes to burn a flag in public SHOULD IMHO be subject to arrest...


or air pollution if you prefer. If you believe that expressing your political beliefs requires you to burn an American flag publicly, then you can do so in a safe, approved, UL-rated burn container or you can pay a big fat fine for the privilege of dirtying the streets.

The above hissed in response by: FredTownWard [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 6, 2007 9:33 AM

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