16 February 2009
"Fascism" in the Classroom?
A California college student is suing his professor for calling him a "fascist" and denying him a grade during a public-speaking class last November. The student's "fascism" consisted of giving a speech against gay rights that apparently included an appeal to Biblical authority. The professor allegedly forbade him from finishing the speech, and gave him a blank grade with a snarky note advising the student to ask God what his grade was. The professor is backed by some other students who regarded the plaintiff's talk as "hate speech," but academic authorities are rightly concerned about a breach of academic freedom. I want to find out more about what the plaintiff said and whether it took him into Fred Phelps territory, but my first reaction to this news was to assume that the instructor had overstepped his bounds. Anyone teaching a public-speaking class, which presumably has something to do with applying rhetoric to controversial subjects, should have a thicker skin than this professor has allegedly shown. The form of his students' speeches are of more proper concern to him than their content. He ought to be able to appraise their eloquence or logic (even if it involves appeals to authorities that the instructor may personally deny) without passing subjective judgments on the intrinsic merits of anyone's argument. The plaintiff may be a homophobic theocrat, or even a fascist of some sort, but if he can articulate his position with at least a semblance of reason, it's owed a reasonable hearing -- especially by a teacher. Outside of the classroom, the kid is on his own if people want to get in his face, but a college classroom is exactly where we ought to air out ideas and shoot down the bad ones without anyone actually getting hurt. If a teacher's own feelings are too tender for the job, he's probably on the wrong tenure track. But all my conclusions are tentative, pending further information. If it's permissible under current legal circumstances, the student, Jonathan Lopez, should make his class speech public so we can judge it for ourselves.