Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Freedom of Speech and the Age of Irresponsibility

Freedom of Speech is the rallying cry of pretty much any group with anything to say – good, bad, or indifferent. On the one hand, I’m not a big fan of censorship. On the other hand, though, I am a big fan of consequence. And I do notice that the ones screaming about their right to say what they want the loudest are usually the same ones using their words as a club to bludgeon someone else.

In the internet age we all have the ability to create a platform. To be heard, and to have our opinions and views counted by more people than we could have reached without the support of the media in years past. This can be a great thing for people who otherwise had no voice.

There are two local cases here that have me thinking a great deal about what our rights are, what the boundaries of our speech should be, and what the general perception of the term ‘Freedom of Speech’ is, as opposed to what it is in reality.

In one case, a politician for a town’s local government was getting skewered pretty good on one of the small paper’s message boards. This is par for the course, but there was one user who never failed to comment and was pretty derogatory... all of which is fine, she’s a public official and it kind of goes with the job description for a political career. However, the user decided to go after her 15 year old son in a fairly vulgar way.

The politician sued to have this user’s true identity released (presumably to go after charges or at least file an order of protection). I can’t say I blame her. It’s not a large town and the user was taking things a little too personally not to live there... which means he was some anon. web person who was scaring a 15 year old boy and probably lived within a few miles of the boy’s home. The politician won the motion to have his name released, but the anon. internet person is appealing.

There was a huge hubbub over this that she didn’t have the right to get his real name. That it infringes on the internet user’s right to privacy. But to me, hiding behind a screen name doesn’t give you the right to say anything you like. Certainly not to a child, and it was clear that the anon commenter knew he was speaking to a 15 year old. To me, that’s like saying if you wear a ski mask while you rob a bank, no one has a right to find out who you are. Just because you wanted to do something anonymously, doesn’t mean you have the right to do it.

Another case just made the news yesterday. A teenage boy got suspended from high school because he made a fanpage on facebook calling one of his female teachers a ‘lewd’ name. The whole fanpage was set up to call this teacher a name so bad that the news wouldn’t even print it. Okay, color him stupid... along with the thirty-something other kids who signed up as fans.

So why was this news? Because the mother is suing the school district stating that they didn’t have the right to suspend this kid because of something he did outside of school. Excuse me while I bounce my head off the desk.

So, instead of taking this situation and letting the kid, I don’t know, learn something maybe. His mother is basically showing him that he can do anything he wants and there shouldn’t be any consequences. So, if he does something equally stupid and disrespectful to say a future boss, then the boss would be WRONG to fire him.

I’m not a proponent of suing, but I almost wish the teacher would sue the kid and his family. I mean, how the hell is she supposed to teach these kids, if they’re all laughing at her and treating her without respect? And then you’ve got this idiot mother telling them that it’s ‘their right’... Oy. Worse than that though, if she keeps coddling this kid and telling him he’s not doing anything wrong – what happens to the kid when he’s 35 and he gets fired for pissing off the boss? What happens when his parents are gone and no one else is around to take his consequences?

There seems to be some consensus of people who think that freedom of speech means that you’re allowed to say whatever you like and no one is allowed to punish you for it. Nice theory, I suppose... except nothing in this world comes without consequence. The right to state your beliefs is an absolute, but the backbone and courage to do so has to be powered by the speaker. The state can’t give that to you and neither can the government, and there are consequences. It might be as insignificant as turning some people off who might have otherwise been friendly to you – it might be as large as losing your job or creating very real enemies. If you want to shout something from the rooftops, go right ahead. But the responsibility for dealing with the fallout that might be thrust on your life is all yours, my friend. So pick your battles wisely. And if you’re going to whine about the unfairness of the consequences, maybe you didn’t earn the right to speak in the first place.

How about you guys? What do you think the parameters are on freedom of speech? What is your take on the anonymous commenting and is it a right to stay anon no matter what you say?


Travis Erwin said...

People would do a lot more thinking before they popped off if duels were still used as a means of settling disputes.

Yeah I'm kidding. I'm not really advocating death as a means to settle a beef but I do believe people should be accountable for their words. Say what you want be be prepared for consequences.

I'm battling this very thing on a much smaller scale here at work.

Lillie Ammann said...


I agree with you completely. Many people never seem to want to take consequences for their words or their actions.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Travis,

I kind of agree with you on the duels thing. One of the reasons it's so rampant online, I believe, is because there is no consequence. The speaker, or typer in this case, never sees the impact of their words and often types things that I'm pretty sure they'd never have the nerve to say directly to the person it's aimed at.

I'm sorry you're having a problem with this type of thing at work. I hope it resolves itself soon.

Hi Lillie,

So nice to see you! I do wonder why it is that so many people right now seem to think there are "NO" consequences for their words. Where did they get that idea? Do they really think that's what the phrase 'freedom of speech' means?

Demon Hunter said...

I do believe in freedom of speech, but people need to be responsible for their actions, verbal or otherwise.

If someone makes a threat towards someone else, it's taken seriously. But then in other instances, you can talk about committing genocide against a certain group and that's not considered a threat by the law. Hmmm.

That sicko threatening a 15 year old boy but doesn't want his name revealed, reminds me of Klan members wearing sheets to hide their shame.

Colleen_Katana said...

Now I'm really curious what this person said about the politician's child...was it a threat? Or just a horrible comment?
Neither of which matters, I'm just curious now. In any case, my humble opinion is that I think she absolutely has the right to find out who this person is, particularly since it involves a minor (and the potential harm/safety of a minor). Of course, being a politician, you do have to have a thicker skin, but it's no excuse for people to attack children unnecessarily. And the whole "anonymity" thing just pisses me off. If you're gonna be hateful and rude... and if you REALLY believe in the power of speech, don't hide behind your veil. Loud and proud.

As for the student...I'm also really curious what he called the teacher now! I mean, I can use my imagination, but this must be the girl inside me who likes to read gossip rags coming out.

I digress...there are totally consequences to your actions. Nobody is taking away his right to say these things (assuming that they haven't forced the fan page to come off the internet...that I would disagree with). If this is what he wants to take a stand on (calling his teacher a cunt or whatever), then by all means, go for it. It's stupid...and you will probably be caught and punished, but hey. It was your choice. This kid was dumb enough to create this page and think that there wouldn't be penalties? That's just stupid. You're right...you absolutely have the freedom to tell your boss he/she is an effing idiot who has no idea about the industry...but by saying that, you'll probably be fired. No one's telling you you CAN'T say it...but there will be consequences if you do.

However, I worked for a company that wouldn't allow its employees to even have a Facebook or Myspace page. THAT, to me, seems like a restriction of speech. I don't think you shouldn't be allowed to have something like that--you should just know that you have to be careful with how you handle your page.

On another note, it used to anger me in high school when they wouldn't allow you to wear your hair a certain way...like, we weren't allowed to color our hair in anything that would be considered "unnatural." That pissed me off...I saw style as a way of expressing myself and I could not believe that a public school would restrict us in that sense.

jjdebenedictis said...

I actually agree with the mother who says the kid shouldn't be punished by the school for things he did outside of school.

But I sure hope she is punishing the poop out of that kid, or she's a ridiculous excuse for a parent.

And the teacher has every right to have the child removed from her class, since he has created an atmosphere of (probably sexual) intimidation. She possibly even has the right to sue the kid for harassment, and I rather think she should. He totally deserves to reap the consequences of his actions.

Another facet of the sense of entitlement you describe--people thinking they have a right to not be (socially or otherwise) punished for being a jerk--is the idea that freedom of expression means they can say anything they want anywhere they want.

These are the people who squawk about having their comments deleted on other people's blogs, forums, etc. They don't understand that while they have the right to say what they like, no one is obligated to provide them with a space to do it in.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Demon hunter,

I agree with you. I would go as far as granting that anyone who wants to remain anon online should be able to, as long as the don't push the boundaries to the point where they're purposely scaring other people or defaming people.

I'm all for free speech. I can say any damn thing I want. The thing is, my name is attached to it. And if I say it, I'll take the consequences - that's my responsibility.

Good to see you, by the way. How's the writing going?

Hi Colleen,

The newspaper took down the actual comments before I found out about the story, so all I could gather about what was actually said was from other commenters who were on the board in subsequent articles.

Apparently, the politician's son had been reading the newspaper and got mad when he saw this user smearing his mom, and left a few comments. The 15 year old said who he was, and they knew how old he was. The user (hipcheck15 or 16 was his user name) apparently made some pretty rank remarks - from what I can gather, he said something about men from the internet coming to visit the kid in a sexual way. Again, I could be off here, I didn't get to read the actual text, but that's what it sounds like was insinuated.

At any rate, I can see why the user wants to remain anon (he's a cretin) but even if not for that, if he lives in the same town as this official and has been bashing her for many months - I'm thinking he'll be in for a lot of parking tickets and fees and such once she has his name. There is a consequence. There always is.

I want to know what the fanpage said, too!!! They had a lawyer from DePaul University on the news, siding with the mother and saying that nothing on his page was defamatory - but the kid and the news both said it was 'lewd', which would indicate sexual in nature...

I don't really care whether he has legal grounds to put up the page. If I was the teacher, I can't swear I wouldn't have just failed every kid who signed up for the fanpage... okay, I'd hope I wouldn't do that, but I can't swear I wouldn't... and I can guarantee I wouldn't go out of my way to help any of them.

So why is the lawyer and the mother standing there telling this kid he has a right, and not pointing out that in the real world, when you treat people like ass, they'll get even... so doing it to a boss or person of superiority is especially stupid. I mean, at least tell the kid that truth if you don't want to bother teaching him actual morals.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hey JJ,

You know, I get the whole, he did it outside of school thing, except because it's on a public forum, there's no way for it not to bleed over into her classroom. All of the kids in her class would have seen it.

The school gave him a choice. Either a full five day suspension or he had to attend anger management classes and only have a two day suspension. I don't really think it was unreasonable. I think one of the reasons public schools have such a hard time is because parents don't hold their children to higher standards of behavior and then have the gall to argue with the school and teachers when their perfect flower is reprimanded at school.

I can see a kid making that mistake - thinking they're just being smart or not thinking ahead to the fact the teacher might eventually see it. But if it was my kid, I'd make him apologize, in writing and as publicly as he committed the crime. And I definitely wouldn't sue. The school's punishment would stand as well as one from me... and hopefully it would teach him not to treat people like that and that there's a consequence to public stupidity.

I don't know. I think kids are supposed to make boneheaded mistakes. But the idea is that they learn from them - not that parents and other adults make excuses so they think assery is okay.

$partacu$ said...

I agree on the personal level effecting the private life of a particular individual ... but on a political, religious, scientific or artistic level I still, and always will, believe that free speech should be absolute; i.e. personal expressions regarding public concerns remains sacrosanct from government intervention or regulation. There has to be a division between the two (an idea that is currently obsolete under the doctrines of the "Homeland Security Act".

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Spartacus,

but on a political, religious, scientific or artistic level I still, and always will, believe that free speech should be absolute; i.e. personal expressions regarding public concerns remains sacrosanct from government intervention or regulation.

I agree with you and I think it was very well put. A lot of people like to argue that our founding fathers (US history, for those outside the US, but there are equivalents in about every country/society) said revolutionary things but they stood behing them with their name. In a lot of cases they did - but there's also a rich history of great thinkers and artists using pen names in a society that wasn't ready for or might penalize them for their words... so I do get that.

It's a wide discussion, really, because it's not a purely black and white issue (most things aren't). But I agree, if we're not able to openly discuss things, there's no way to propel forward and intellectual progress stagnates.

Thanks for stopping in and your thoughtful comment.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

I think the clear bit in both these case are that children are involved.

15 year olds don't get freedom of speech. They don't get a lot of rights and privileges adults get, like driving, for instance, because they're not old enough.

Ditto on the other case. You say something to or about a kid on the Internet, you run the risk of having to show yourself.

I used to get screamed at by this obnoxious guy down the street for driving too fast. I drove a jacked up, tuned jeep and I look pretty young at a distance. I'm sure he thought he was yelling at some kid, or even if it was a mom, so what? It's at a distance, right?

So I stopped. I yelled back, "I'm going 25, which is the speed limit on this street, where I too, happen to own a house and I too, have kids who play. It's a loud car. Deal with it."

I left him pretty well "speechless" Pun intended.

Consequences and confrontation work.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

And actually, with the way our education system is set up, I think the kid should be reap consequences by the school. The school's first obligation is to the majority of the students. Obviously this student greatly interrupted other students' learning.

So for instance, say a kid rapes someone. There's consequences outside of school, of course, but then the public school where s/he is slated to go just has to take the kid back with no recourse because the rape took place outside of school? How is that good for the majority?

When I worked with kids in a special program (troubled, underpriviledged kids) I had discretion whether they could attend or not. Every time I kicked a kid out for disrupting others' learning, they came back and became nearly angelic. Happened several times with different kids, but never the same kid twice. Schools deserve some recourse and control.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi SS@S,

Okay, you and I could totally hang out because I would have stopped and yelled at the guy, too :-)

For me, freedom of speech is absolute, but with it comes the responsibility to answer for your words. Anon. is fine when you're afraid of retribution for your ideals or beliefs, not when it's a means to cloak cowardice and allow you to in any way hurt others.

As far as the kid goes, I can see putting up a page like that at 16. Technology has made it easy for kids to be stupid in public. But they need the consequences, or how will they learn how detrimental that type of thing can be? Look at all the young girls sending out pornographic texts to their boyfriends because they 'love' them... look how detrimental that mistake can be.

I agree with you about the school getting to set a standard for their students' behavior online. My problem wasn't with the school's punishment but the mother's reaction. I see it too often. These parents who think they're protecting their kids when they're really handicapping their ability to deal in the real world... and creating a difficult learning environment for everyone else's kids. Really it's a books worth of discussion. But I feel like all these people are pointing fingers at teachers and school districts and completely overlooking the biggest decider of the success or failure of education - the child's parents/family/home environment.