The One Where I Might Be Harshing Free Speech
Hello, School of Doubt! I’m very happy to participate in this project. I’m a tenured associate professor of English at a baccalaureate liberal arts college. My Ph.D. specialization area was British Romantics, but everyone is a generalist where I work because the school is very small, meaning I can teach anything from freshman composition to Gothic novels to video gaming theory. I have a husband and a teenage son, two cats, and two rescued Yorkshire Terriers. I self-identify as skeptic, atheist, feminist, humanist, posthumanist, vegetarian, liberal, and Diet Coke enthusiast.
Some disclaiming: I love free speech as much as the next liberal college professor. I teach literature, which would be nigh impossible without the brave speech acts of poets who didn’t give a shit for how their work would be vilified or censured. I’m a feminist, and we all know how crucial speech is to civil rights progress, and how hegemony conserves its power by silencing dissident voices. So this post serves as my confession, and I humbly invite you to assign penance, for I, DrShell, have knowingly and purposefully interfered with free speech on my campus: I took down a flyer advertising iridology and ear candling services to my students.
Do I have the right to do this? I honestly don’t know. At one time, the school claimed a campus-wide flyer posting policy that involved signatures and permissions. (I know this only because of the uproar that resulted when those rules were introduced by a new dean, with students and faculty protesting the limiting of, you guessed it, free speech.) The flyer in question did not display any Stamp of Official Permission. That dean is long gone, though, and I can’t assert that this policy persists and, since confession is a genre of disclosure (or at least its reasonable counterfeit), I will admit that I don’t care much about stamps of permission. I did not remove the flyer because it lacked a stamp; I removed it because it was selling quackery to my students. My people. People who, in the words of Judge Judy, “are not fully cooked,” who often lack the education and savvy needed to see through pseudoscientific language. I couldn’t stand the thought of abandoning them to the machinations of an iridologist–“certified” though she may be.
At first, I pulled down the flyer so that I could take it to my office and use it in a Facebook post. The college where I teach serves fewer than 900 students, all undergraduates, so we get quite chummy with them; I have dozens of students as Facebook friends, many of whom I have not had in a class. My plan was to put the flyer back after posting a photo accompanied by the following:
Posted on campus. Please educate yourself about these pseudoscientific practices and ideas before paying someone for them. Ear candling is illegal in some countries because burns and fires have resulted from it–not to mention the fact it does not and cannot do what it claims. Iridology probably won’t hurt anything but your wallet, unless of course there is something medically wrong with you and you eschew medical treatment in favor of whatever “supplements” the friendly iridologist happily sells you.
Due diligence, yes? Using my free speech to interrogate someone else’s freely spoken free speech and yay, freedom. And speech. It could have stopped there. And yet…I walked back out of my office, flyer in hand, and ran into a couple of colleagues, to whom I showed the offending document. They had never heard of iridology. When I explained it, one friend responded immediately, “So that would be bullshit, right?” She’s very smart, though, with a Ph.D. in political science. Would our students know? Would they fall for the smiley face-festooned assurances or the ethos of a “certified” professional? Would they give this quack their book money so she could peer into their eyes and sell them useless supplements? I began to lose confidence in my Facebook powers.
So I told them, my political science friend and the other, a sociologist, that I was on my way to replace the flyer. Should I follow through? Was I obligated? The political scientist: “I would say no.” The sociologist: “I think you forgot to put it back.” I returned to my office and threw the thing in the trash.
Was that the right thing to do? If we leave aside the issue of whether or not stamped permissions are required for on-campus leafletting, the woman has a right to advertise her legal services in a public forum. However, I happen to know that iridology is a fraudulent methodology, and I feel compelled to protect my charges from such. To widen the scope a bit, I’m asking if teachers must abide by the absurd cultural imperative to show “tolerance” for alternative modalities, even when we know better, even when we’re trying to shield students. I do feel bad about what I did; I wouldn’t want a judge-y stranger messing with my posted flyers. At the same time, I would do it again.