UNH Lecturer Speaks Untruth to the Unpowerful

This is another post "inspired" by an article in a recent issue of The New Hampshire, the student newspaper at the University Near Here. (If you weren't with us yesterday, the first post is here.)

The article in question is at the bottom of page one, by Jordyn Haime ("Staff Writer"), headlined "Community interprets First Amendment rights". It starts by recapping a recent outrage:

A video of UNH’s Alpha Phi chapter singing the n-word in Kanye West’s “Gold Digger” went viral in September, sparking a campus-wide conversation around First Amendment rights and freedom of speech.

After the video was posted on the “All Eyes on UNH” Facebook page on Sept. 19, Dean of Students Ted Kirkpatrick sent an email to the student body condemning the use of the word and stated that the university was investigating the matter.

We discussed the imbroglio here a few weeks back. The article relates the abrupt about-face regarding the Dean-promised "investigation":

In a follow-up email on Sept. 21, Kirkpatrick corrected that assertion, stating that “this is a matter of common decency, not law,” and that the sorority was not under investigation by the university. The email also included an apology letter from Alpha Phi chapter president, Megan Shields.

“The University of New Hampshire remains fully committed to the First Amendment,” Kirkpatrick wrote.

Cooler heads eventually prevailed, in other words, probably after some panicked legal advice was offered. But it's still grimly amusing that Dean Kirkpatrick's first reaction to students singing a Grammy-winning song was to threaten an "investigation".

But that was weeks ago. Let's move on, because it gets worse:

The First Amendment of the Constitution grants citizens the freedom to exercise religion and free speech. However, no right is absolute, and every right comes with responsibilities, says Kathy Kiely, a UNH lecturer in journalism.

"No right is absolute" is a trite truism. But the limits on Constitution-protected speech are known relatively well. I recommend the First Amendment Library at the website of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), or the First Amendment FAQ at the website of the Newseum Institute.

Beyond that, Kiely is clearly out of her Constutional depth. "Every right comes with responsibilities" is meaningless, vapid claptrap. It's a bromide tossed out exclusively by people who want the power to erode your rights. (I suppose they think the alliteration makes it seem profound. Like "trite truism".)

But Kiely has more, by which I mean "even worse":

“As a journalist, I’ve never felt I have the right to say whatever I want just because I have First Amendment protections,” Kiely said. “The right to speak truth to power doesn’t give us all a license to be ignorant and hurtful.”

Sorry, Ms. Kiely: the First Amendment does grant journalists—and everyone else, for that matter—a legal right to be "ignorant and hurtful". You can say just about any stupid or insulting thing you want in a newspaper, a magazine, on a soapbox in the town square—or, ahem, your blog—and you will not get in legal trouble for it. (Within the well-defined limits mentioned by the references above: libel, kiddy porn, blackmail, etc.)

[Update: I said "grant" above. That's not right. The FA recognizes and protects rights; it does not "grant" them. Sorry.]

It goes without saying, but I'll say it anyway: I think being "ignorant and hurtful" is a bad idea, and you shouldn't do it. But, simply said, you have the right to be wrong.

As far as "ignorant and hurtful" goes, it seems that Kathy Kiely is (a) pretty ignorant about Constitutional law, and it is (b) sort of hurtful (at least to my sensibilities) that she's in a position to spread her ignorance to UNH students. Her smug reference to "speak[ing] truth to power" is especially galling when she hasn't even got the "speaking truth" part down pat yet.

[Smugness is a theme with Ms. Kiely. Her UNH profile quotes: "My goal as a journalism teacher is very modest — to save civilization as we know it." Eeesh.]

And she keeps going downhill, because it's a slippery slope:

Our system of government also operates on check and balances, Kiely points out, and the 14th Amendment grants that citizens may not be deprived of “life, liberty or property without due process of law.” Hate speech is speech that might deprive others of that right, she says.

If Kiely had been paying attention back in high school, she might have remembered that "checks and balances" refers to the delegation of power among branches of government, not the exercise of rights. And the relevance of the Fourteenth Amendment is actually that it expands the First's "Congress shall make no law" language and extends it to (specifically) public universities. Like UNH.

Kiely either didn't know this, or didn't mention it to the reporter. Which is worse?

But in addition to that illiteracy, Kiely's "hate speech" assertion is simply wrong. As law professor Eugene Volokh has said: There’s no “hate speech” exception to the First Amendment.

“I would just ask the free-speech-at-all-cost advocates to consider how they might feel if it were their life and their liberty in the balance,” Kiely said.

Well, it's all about how you feel, isn't it?

I would just ask Ms. Kiely: what would she think—not "feel"—would be the disadvantages of having UNH administrators hold sway over the academic careers of lowly students who run afoul of the Speech Policers. For extra credit: identify the "power imbalances". And then "speak truth to power".


Last Modified 2017-10-11 7:23 AM EDT

It

[3.0 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

A horror movie based on an old Stephen King novel. It's got high production values and excellent special effects. But…

It's set in the largish Maine town of Derry, sometime in the late 1980s. As it turns out, the town has been cursed by periodic appearances of the evil clown Pennywise, who's especially fond of luring young people to their doom. The townspeople mostly live in fear/denial of this unfortunate happenstance.

But this time he's up against a group of young "losers". The leader is a stammering kid who's lost his kid brother to Pennywise. There's a black kid, a Jewish kid, a kid who's too smart-alecky for his own good, a fat kid, an asthmatic, and a girl who's been branded a slut.

Gosh, this sounds a lot like Stranger Things, doesn't it? Even though I know that it was Stranger Things ripping off paying homage to Stephen King, my movie-brain kept seeing the causality go the other way. And I also couldn't help but notice how manipulative the whole lovable-losers-vs-evil schtick was.

Still, a decent yarn. Along the way, there's a lot of grossness, scariness, occasional humor. It's long, and (I assume) they didn't want to make it longer by spelling out where Pennywise came from, the nature of his relationship with the town [it's pretty clear that some adults are at least semi-complicit], nor [semi-spoiler] what happened to all those kids at the end, or what the red balloons mean.