Speech vs. Defiance
posted by Frank Pasquale
1) This case strikes me as the reductio ad absurdum of the classic “liberal autonomy” case for free speech. The plaintiff by his own admission has virtually no message except for “I want to show that I can exercise my free speech rights” . . . begging the great question posed by John H. Garvey in his book What are Freedoms For? As Garvey argues,
We should understand freedom . . . as a right to act, not a right to choose; and furthermore, we should view freedom as a right to engage in actions that are good and valuable. This may seem obvious, but it inverts a central principle of liberalism–the idea that the right is prior to the good.
2) Given the ambiguity of this message, Starr tried to make the case about an admin law issue; who is to decide a) whether a student’s speech is part of a school activity and b) whether the student’s message contradicts the school’s educational mission?
3) Expect the question raised by 2a to be increasingly important as schools start scouring MySpace and other social networking sites for objectionable speech. Consider this suspension for a YouTube video: “A model student is in court this week over a 40-day suspension for posting a mocking in-class video to YouTube of ‘Mongzilla’, a high school english teacher.” The administration is careful not to say that the speech itself is being punished, but rather, that the suspension “was punishment for the disruption created by the students secreting a video camera into [the teacher's] class and dancing in a mocking, disrespectful manner while her back was turned.”
4) Following Garvey (and perhaps Collins and Skover), I think cases like Mongzilla & Bong Hits can be distinguished from more protectible advocacy. The former seem to be more about defiance than a real message. The students involved could learn a lot from Martin Buber’s basic idea of stressing “mutual, holistic existence without qualification or objectification of the other.” Perhaps the old “speech/conduct” distinction will prove useful here.