The self-annihilation of a man of the arts
“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:
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.”
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.
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.