The self-annihilation of a man of the arts

roger-ebert

“As some leftie website put it, “Defending freedom of speech for jerks means defending jerks.” Well, yes. But, in this case, not defending the jerks means not defending freedom of speech for yourself. It’s not a left/right thing; it’s a free/unfree thing.” — Mark Steyn

You’d think a professional writer and man of the arts would agree wholeheartedly with such a sentiment. It is, one might even say, a foundational principle of such a career in the West. But no such assumption obtains with respect to Roger Ebert:

Ebert Being An Ass

Before I go any further, let me just restate what I’ve made abundantly clear elsewhere: While I understand that it’s mostly a cry for help, I am opposed to Arizona’s SB1070 on the grounds that it will inevitably force citizens to carry ID with them at all times. And, just as I am against a national ID card, I oppose any law that would have such an effect.

That said, my basic agreement with the less… even tempered opponents of the bill does not prevent me from being appalled by their outrageous hyperbole, asinine contempt for those who reasonably disagree, and (of course) reflexive invocations of Godwin. And this latest from Ebert — someone who, even more than most liberals, really ought to know better — has really gotten under my skin. Thus, I feel a need to speak out in defense of those with whom I disagree.

Even assuming, arguendo, that Ebert is correct, he should know — and, indeed, believe to the very core of his life-spent-in-the-arts being — that it’s irrelevant. Even leaving aside the dubious assertion that an American flag is offensive, the students’ right to wear them, and the administrator’s grievous error in punishing them for doing so, are well settled.Tinker v. Des Moines School Dist., 393 U.S. 503 (1969), states the matter quite plainly:

First Amendment rights, applied in light of the special characteristics of the school environment, are available to teachers and students. It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate. This has been the unmistakable holding of this Court for almost 50 years.

To be sure, subsequent case (most recently Morse v. Frederick, 551 US 393 (2007), the famous “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” case) have set some limits on student speech to which adults in other settings would not be subjected. But no-one can argue that displaying an American flag can ever fall outside of them — no matter what the subjective intent for doing so may have been. Certainly not a person who depends utterly on the First Amendment to make a living.

Such illiberalism is no surprise to anyone who’s paid a modicum of attention to Ebert’s political digressions of late. But insipid “teabagger” jokes and paint-by-numbers leftism aren’t even worth remarking upon. This is something altogether different. The word “disgust” comes to mind, but is woefully inadequate. But perhaps Ebert himself has provided the best summation of his own lead balloon. In a tweet yesterday, he quoted Louis Armstrong thusly: “There are some folks that, if they don’t know, you can’t tell ’em.”

UPDATE (James Joyner):  Judging from the comments, Dodd’s presumption that readers would know the background of the story was in error.

Wednesday, on Cinco de Mayo, five Anglo students at Live Oak High School in Morgan Hill, California showed up wearing t-shirts emblazoned with American flags.  Assistant principal Miguel Rodriguez, thinking it potentially inflammatory on a day when students of Mexican origin were celebrating their heritage, demanded that they turn said shirts inside out.  They refused and were sent home, sparking a national debate.

Roger Ebert weighed in with a Tweet saying, “Kids who wear American Flag t-shirts on 5 May should have to share a lunchroom table with those who wear a hammer and sickle on 4 July.”

roger-ebert-american-flags-hammer-sickle

Shockingly, this idiotic analogy was poorly received by many Americans, prompting much back-and-forth.

In truth, I haven’t spent much time paying attention to either the incident or Ebert’s comments.  My general instinct on these things is the same as Dodd’s:  Wearing an American flag to an American high school simply shouldn’t be considered inflammatory, is well within the bounds of even the somewhat limited free speech rights accorded to minor children attending public high schools, and should be defended by people making their living expressing themselves.

Two caveats.

There are circumstances when even ordinary speech can be an incitement to violence and school administrators have to have some discretion in those cases.  If Live Oaks has a lot of Anglo-Hispanic tension with a history of violence, for example, then Rodriguez’ otherwise outrageous actions could be justified.  There are schools, for example, which ban the wearing of certain colors or even, say, Oakland Raiders paraphernalia, because of gang associations and the resultant promotion of violence.   More likely, Rodriguez was just abusing his authority out of an overabundance of caution, like the ninnies who enforce a “zero tolerance” policy against drugs and send home honor students for taking aspirin.

I haven’t read all of Ebert’s tweets on the matter and don’t have a good sense of his full view.  It may well be that he thinks Rodriguez overreacted or, at very least, thinks the kids were jerks but have a Constitutional right to be jerks.   That’s not an unreasonable position.  For example, I simultaneously think  Fred Phelps has a right to picket funerals whilst holding up “God hates fags” signs and think Phelps is pond scum.   I don’t happen to think wearing American t-shirts on Cinco de Mayo, which as Steven Taylor points out, isn’t really a big deal in Mexico, is comparable.  But Ebert has a right to spew really stupid thoughts in 140 characters or less.

FILED UNDER: Politics 101, , , , ,
Dodd Harris
About Dodd Harris
Dodd, who used to run a blog named ipse dixit, is an attorney, a veteran of the United States Navy, and a fairly good poker player. He contributed over 650 pieces to OTB between May 2007 and September 2013. Follow him on Twitter @Amuk3.

Comments

  1. Stan says:

    I don’t understand this post. The students expressed their political beliefs and Ebert criticized the way they went about it. What’s wrong with that? Are you saying that the students should have the right to express themselves but Ebert shouldn’t? Or what?

  2. Alex Knapp says:

    Is there some context for this? It seems to me like you can decry jerks and still think that they have the right to be jerks? Am I missing something here?

  3. GS says:

    I’m with you on Ebert. Not so much on S.B. 1070. Given that LEO’s are going to ask for identification during any traffic or criminal stop, which are amended provisions in SB1070 as it currently stands, it’s not changing anything from what already exists. As far as immigrants are concerned, they’re supposed to be carrying identification with them anyways. I am hispanic, and look hispanic, and I’ve never had a problem with law enforcement. Mostly that’s because the times I’ve encountered them that they asked for ID, I produced my AZ license, and that was that.

    If you don’t have ID but can give a verifiable verbal ID, and it was something like loitering or jaywalking, I’m willing to bet my bottom dollar that LEO’s are gonna let things lie, given that they would have to contact the feds under 1070, and given that they are not stupid and don’t want to be tied up in court over enforcement suits.

    I know the Arpaio horror stories that the MSM likes to trumpet, but I live here, and I have never seen Gestapo round-ups. There were dudes standing out on the side of the road this morning waiting for work on Arizona Ave. in Chandler just like they do every weekend. Several cops drove by (Chandler PD HQ is like half a mile from this particular stretch) and nobody rounded anybody up. Just sayin’, I think that misconception and misplaced fears compromise the majority of concern surrounding SB1070.

    A (much) more well-versed individual re: legal issues.. http://legalinsurrection.blogspot.com/2010/04/saturday-night-card-game-arizona.html

  4. Dave says:

    There are certainly some cases in which these t-shirts would not fall under first amendment protection, in which case Ebert really isn’t as far off the constitutional mark as you make out.

    I don’t know the exact details of this incident, but if the American flag shirts were being worn in concert with behavior deliberately provoking the Mexican American students (if it was clear their purpose was solely to provoke and harass), then the shirts would not be considered protected speech; they’d be the equivalent of shouting fire in a crowded theater.

  5. If Ebert thinks that being merely insulting is not protected speech, he’s wrong and has some unfortunate fascist tendencies. If it’s an attempt to incite violence, then it’s not protected.

    To better answer this, I would need to know what Ebert wants to do about this. If he’s bothered by it and is advocating more speech, no problem. If he wants more, there might be a problem.

  6. PD Shaw says:

    It’s been a long time since wearing an American Flag to school was this kewl! At least not since they were were worn as patches on pants.

  7. Juneau: says:

    The issue about the American flag shirts on Cinco De Mayo is a manufactured offense, viewed with the perception of a minority group (and educator group) that has bought into a victim-class mentality.

    This is the United States. It’s not Mexico, and it doesn’t become Mexico for a day on May 5th. Every day is United States day, even May 5th. Get used to it. Providing for a special day – where people that have their ancestry in another country can honor their heritage in an official way -does not give them a “right” to pretend that their vision of a hyphenated America (mexican-american, african-american, irish-american) is the correct one.

    Many people are happy celebrating their ancestral heritage without feeling like they have to be treated “special” because of their roots (such as the Irish, German, Vietnamese, Korean, etc.), but they haven’t been trained extensively to think of themselves as victims, so you don’t see them whining about a lack of “respect.”

    Either be an American first, or be something else, but don’t think that people need to listen to your sniveling about “your” day being more important than ANY day – or action- that honors the country that you claim to want to be a part of.

    Ebert is nothing but an enabler for the poor-victim mentality, along with many others of his type and political persuasion.

  8. Michael Reynolds says:

    Did you seriously write this entire screed based on a single tweet? Good grief.

  9. Dodd says:

    I don’t understand this post. The students expressed their political beliefs and Ebert criticized the way they went about it. What’s wrong with that? Are you saying that the students should have the right to express themselves but Ebert shouldn’t? Or what?

    I don’t see how you could get that from my post. Obviously I think someone is free to criticize another’s exercise of free speech. He clearly seems to believe that the students’ punishment was appropriate, else he wouldn’t have spent days attacking them, never once standing up for their rights. And that deserves criticism.

    Did you seriously write this entire screed based on a single tweet? Good grief.

    Of course not. I would’ve thought anyone reading OTB would already know that it started when he equated wearing an American flag on Cinco de Mayo with wearing a hammer and sickle on 4th of July (even though he later crudely insulted people he perceived as thinking CdM was a real holiday). This is just his attempt to justify himself.

  10. Idiot says:

    Jesus does Ebert looks old and frail – much like his thinking. Of course this is gratuitous.

  11. Herb says:

    Wank wank wank. Really? Going after Roger Ebert for his “illiberal” tweet? Shouldn’t we be reserving our outrage for Miguel Rodriguez?

    Miguel Rodriguez??? Who’s that? Google him. He’s the real bad guy here.

    Who cares what Roger Ebert tweeted? This definitely falls in the “Someone on the internet said something dumb” category. No reason to let it get under your skin, Dodd. Unless you have really thin skin.

  12. anjin-san says:

    Who cares what Roger Ebert thinks about this issue? Certainly not I. He is entitled to his opinion, but why its worth 5 seconds of thought is a mystery…

  13. sam says:

    Well, here’s Ebert defending himself:

    Many others informed me that Americans have the right to be proud of our flag, and wear it on T-shirts. Of course they do. That isn’t the question. [my emphasis] It’s not what my Tweet said. What I suggested, in its 108 letters, is that we could all use a little empathy. I wish I had worded it better.

    Read the whole thing and decide if Dodd is right.

  14. Andy says:

    Dodd:

    “I haven’t read all of Ebert’s tweets on the matter”

    LOL, why waste your time reading literally hundreds of characters before forming an opinion on the subject.

    Also I’d suggest you look up “in loco parentis” before you declare Ebert so far out of bounds. School administrators clearly have the latitude to censor speech that disrupts school. It seems reasonable that a coordinated display meant to antagonize the minority population would qualify, depending on the specifics.

    In any case I want to know why nobody is criticizing the five students for using the American flag for playground taunts. You’d think the anti-desecration crowd would insist on more respectful uses.

  15. john personna says:

    I grew up in California towns with Spanish names. That always made Cinco De Mayo kind of natural. I’ve always considered California half-Mexican, even though we stole it fair and square.

    I have no doubt that the t-shirts were an issue the Principal was going to have to deal with though. Community relations were going to bite on one hand or the other. In my dad’s day, teaching in East LA, La Raza was just part of the situation.

  16. Time to stop pretending that Roger Ebert, and many others, really give a damn about free speech, or just about any phrase that includes the word free. Freedom as a governing and organizational concept has been replaced by equality (of outcome).

    President Obama, Speaker Pelsoi, et al, are just riding the wave, they didn’t create it.

  17. Dodd says:

    Dodd:

    “I haven’t read all of Ebert’s tweets on the matter”

    That was James, in the update, not me. You can tell because his name is there in bold text to identify where the author changed.

    As already indicated, I have read Ebert’s tweets on the matter (including the attempt to retcon the original quoted by sam) and stand by my post. It’s deeply offensive that a man of the arts would reflexively go after a bunch of kids for exercising their right to free speech. Voltaire may or may not have actually promised to fight to the death for people’s right to say things he disagrees with, but he’s spinning in his grave.

    Also I’d suggest you look up “in loco parentis” before you declare Ebert so far out of bounds.

    Since I quoted the relevent SupCt case on the matter, you might look upscreen at the post you’re commenting on.

  18. Dodd,

    I agree with your point here. I follow Ebert on Twitter (though I rarely use it) and elsewhere, and his politics gets a little annoying. Oftentimes he presumes that people who disagree with him are arguing in bad faith and he has a penchant for hyperbole.

  19. Andy says:

    Dodd:

    Fair enough about Joyner’s authorship. I was trying to read the original post on a teeny-tiny iPhone screen, and when you zoom in enough to make the text legible, it’s easy to miss a phrase.

    On your other point though I think you’re wrong. Specifically the lessons of Tinker are precisely the opposite of what you draw: 1) students’ First Amendment rights are curtailed in a school setting, and 2) school administrators have a duty to protect orderly learning that eclipses whatever remaining freedom of speech rights the student may have. The quote you cited merely protects students from wanton and arbitrary censorship. In other words a “Tinker test” is appropriate and administrators have the authority to exercise it.

    Which by all accounts is what happened here.

    Here’s where I think Ebert has a point: he’s saying, look, if these students want to have their free speech protected, let’s at least make a casual attempt to divine what their message is. (The movie critic in him is apparent: if you think your point of view is attention-worthy, let’s see about that.) And there aren’t too many ways to follow the logic of wearing American flags on Cinco de Mayo that don’t eventually lead to something abhorrent along the lines of “Hispanic kids aren’t really true Americans like we are”.

    And I think Ebert was saying that in a setting where free speech is NOT absolutely protected, a la Tinker, let’s not cry too hard for a couple of real jerks who weren’t saying anything that remotely contributed to the learning environment in the first place.

  20. Dodd says:

    And I think Ebert was saying that in a setting where free speech is NOT absolutely protected, a la Tinker, let’s not cry too hard for a couple of real jerks who weren’t saying anything that remotely contributed to the learning environment in the first place.

    The Nazis who sued for the right to march through Skokie, IL probably intended to annoy, intimidate, and insult the Jews in the neighbourhood. But they had the right to do so. Free speech is pretty meaningless where it only applies to non-objectionable speech.

    Where there is no incitement to immediate violence, the perception that there’s a desire to annoy is irrelevant. Even for students. Hell, the principal has apologized, but Ebert is stiull justifying himself rather than admit, as the principal has, that his reflexive response was inappropriate.

    And, even leaving aside how far through the looking glass we have to be to be arguing about the American flag being offensive, a proper man of letters ought to err on the side of free speech. And I suspect Ebert would say that burning an American flag is protected speech. So it’s pretty foul when he goes the other way when he perceives a message he dislikes.

  21. Andy says:

    Dodd:

    In fairness to Ebert, (I’m not his biographer but) I don’t believe he has any sort of a record of opposing the rights of Nazis, flag burners, flag promoters, or anyone else who wants to exercise free speech as adults. And as far as censoring students goes, I think the Supreme Court backs him up. So we’re not talking about a terribly controversial position here.

    I think we’re close to beating a dead horse but there’s one comment of yours that comes to the crux of our disagreement:

    “But no-one can argue that displaying an American flag can ever fall outside of them — no matter what the subjective intent for doing so may have been.”

    I would certainly argue the opposite. The American flag is “just” a symbol, like any other: its meaning depends entirely on what the speaker and the audience freights it with.

    For example, the flag generally represents our country, our people, our troops, Mom & apple pie, etc… all uncontroversially good things to most of us. For some reason however during wartime the flag can also come to mean the promotion of a hawkish pro-war perspective. It is that way because it’s an additional symbolic meaning that the sender and receiver of the message agree upon. So the use of a flag has somewhat testier connotations during a controversial war. I’m sure you’re aware of that.

    In this case the students in question weren’t just wearing flag shirts one day because they all woke up and decided that they loved representative democracy and the good ol’ US of A. It was because they wanted to taunt the Mexican kids for their “otherness”, and the flag became a symbol of all sorts of xenophobic sentiment. Ebert was exactly right that patriotism had nothing to do with the display.

    So the subjective intent of the students- never really subtle- could have easily inflamed tension to the point that their “speech” was disruptive to the learning of others. At which point the principal was correct, under Tinker, to have them remove the symbology. This is all quite reasonable. And I’m fairly confident that that was what Ebert was getting at all along.

  22. Dodd says:

    It is that way because it’s an additional symbolic meaning that the sender and receiver of the message agree upon. So the use of a flag has somewhat testier connotations during a controversial war. I’m sure you’re aware of that.

    I’m aware some people want to burden it with such. That doesn’t make it so. Nor does it make the principal’s actions reasonable — as he himself seems to have (belatedly) realized. Had he merely admonished them not to incite any breaches of the peace, that might have been reasonable (depending on circumstances none of us is privy to), but suspension for flag t-shirts are patently unreasonable.

  23. Andy says:

    “That doesn’t make it so.”

    You’re only correct if the user of the symbol isn’t aware of the extra meaning; for instance, if someone wears a blue bandanna in Compton because it matches his pants and wonders why he’s attracting so much attention. I assume that the students in question were indeed aware that their use of the flag would be construed as having social commentary about the Mexican-American kids.

    In which case that commentary is every bit as “real” a part of the symbolism of the flag in that context, with those participants as any of the traditional or more universal meanings of the flag as symbol. That’s the very essence of symbology: there’s no such thing as an objective meaning, just subjective meanings that are or aren’t agreed to by the sender and receiver of the symbol.

    “suspension for flag t-shirts”

    This might seem like nit-picking but I believe the kids were sent home for not turning the shirts inside out, not for wearing them in the first place. In which case the punishment was for insubordination.

    In any case it’s standard practice. I remember being in grade school when “The Simpsons” was fresh enough to be considered edgy, if not racy: a few kids were told to put jackets on over their “I’m Bart Simpson, Who the Hell Are You” t-shirts (it’s amusing what passed for offensive back then) or go home. Everyone I knew chose jackets, not wanting to involve their parents. The kids we’re discussing must have chosen differently, but at any rate, it’s their choice.