Jim Dey: No clowning around with free speech

Jim Dey: No clowning around with free speech

1st Amendment protects you from government, but not from losing job

In this high-tech age, people have a variety of options when it comes to sticking their feet in their mouths.

Weigh in with a Letter to the Editor here

Rodeo clown Ian Waller did it the old-fashioned way a couple weeks ago, telling racially offensive jokes at the Champaign County Fair. He reportedly told the crowd that the government is going to levy higher taxes on aspirin because "they're white and they work."

English Professor Steven Salaita chose a more technologically upscale forum for self-immolation, posting obscenity-laden rants about Israel on Twitter.

"(Expletive) you, #Israel. And while I'm at it, (expletive) you too, PA, SIS, arab monarchs, Obama, UK, EU, Canada, US Senate, corporate media, and ISIS," he tweeted.

After his foray into ill-advised humor, Waller found himself on the outs with fair officials as well as members of the public, reportedly never to be hired to work locally again. Salaita's words apparently have cost him a University of Illinois faculty post. Although no one in authority is saying so, a tentative agreement to hire him was withdrawn before it could be sent to UI trustees for approval.

While no one has defended Waller's ill-chosen words, thousands have signed petitions defending Salaita's free-speech rights.

Actually, freedom of speech doesn't apply in either case, at least until a court says it does.

No one is seeking to abrogate either man's right to speak, but plenty sought to impose consequences for exercising it. Further, their respective positions — Waller, a contract entertainer, and Salaita, a prospective employee — don't appear to give them any legal protections.

The reaction to these events demonstrates once again how sensitive and selective our society has become to specific words or issues that offend them.

How many people defending Salaita's freedom of speech would defend Waller's? Virtually none. Indeed, Salaita's supporters would be among those most enthusiastically condemning Waller's racial humor.

That's why, to borrow a phrase from First Amendment defender Nat Hentoff, freedom of speech, for many people, actually means freedom of speech for me, but not for thee.

Steve Beckett, a UI law professor and free-speech defender, said these speech controversies show "a level of intolerance that has developed in our society that is frightening."

"As a First Amendment lawyer, you have to be worried about where we are," he said.

Beckett, who calls himself a "devil's advocate for the marketplace of ideas," holds to the view that tolerating the expression of the most offensive ideas is what paves the way for everyone to freely express their own ideas. He cites the controversial march by the Nazis in the heavily Jewish community of Skokie in 1977 as an example of that concept.

While the Waller controversy has faded, the rhetoric is flying fast and furious about Salaita. Among the professor's biggest defenders is Robert Warrior, head of the UI's American Indian Studies Department, where Salaita was scheduled to begin work.

In a Salaita petition on Change.org, Warrior said, "I remain committed to Steven's appointment and to the principles of academic freedom more and more at stake here at Illinois and in the academic world more broadly."

In a subsequent online article, Warrior was quoted as saying that "Salaita told him the university emailed a letter telling him of its decision" to withdraw its job offer.

"He has no explanation and frankly as a unit executive officer I also don't have an explanation," said Warrior.

As is often the case in these controversies, the rhetoric is reaching new heights of fantasy.

Ray Hanania, who writes for The Arab Daily News, has accused Chancellor Phyllis Wise and the UI of committing a hate crime by not hiring Salaita.

"The Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan should immediately investigate the actions of the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana and apply the state's hate crimes laws in defense of a professor who has been singled out not because of his political views but because his political views have targeted the foreign country of Israel and because the victim, Steven Salaita, is an American Arab," he said.

Another academic, Corey Robin, a New York college professor, has called for an academic boycott of the UI while the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights has written Chancellor Wise to protest the decision to "terminate (Salaita's) appointment ... based on the content of his constitutionally-protected speech critical of Israeli government practices in recent weeks."

"We strongly urge you to retract this precipitous decision and reaffirm your commitment to academic freedom and the right of members of the University of Illinois community to engage vocally and vociferously on matter of great public concern," wrote Baher Azmy, the center's legal director.

The Illinois American Association of University Professors, not the local UI AAUP chapter, also has come to Salaita's defense on speech grounds.

Salaita's critics have pushed back. William Jacobson, writing on the Campus-watch.org website, said that Salaita and others pushing the "Boycott, Divest and Sanctions" movement against Israel in the university community have an obvious agenda.

"One thing about Salaita's tweets — he said how he feels. And how he feels is that Israel should be destroyed ('decolonized' in his lingo)," Jacobson writes.

That, of course, would be controversial, but clearly protected, under freedom of speech and academic thoughts if Salaita was a UI employee. But he made the mistake of fouling his own nest before he got on the UI payroll.

That's the other side of the free-speech issue. Just as people are free to speak out, those who disagree can choose not to have anything to do with them.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or at 351-5369.

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rsp wrote on August 12, 2014 at 8:08 am

Just like you should know your audience, you should take the time to look at who you hire. How could the U of I not know about Salaita's tweets before they agreed to hire him? It's not like they were hidden or in some obscure language. What happened to that background check they were going to do on everyone? Somehow this is all Kilgore's fault!

jlc wrote on August 12, 2014 at 12:08 pm

If Salaita had made his rude comments in a professional setting, or if Waller had made his bad joke in a personal tweet rather than as part of his job, you might be justified in comparing the two. As it is, not so much.

bluegrass wrote on August 12, 2014 at 1:08 pm

So the U of I should hire Salaita because he didn't say at work what he tweeted, or are you just nitpicking the comparison?

rayhanania wrote on August 13, 2014 at 5:08 am

The nice thing is even a columnist has the right to free speech, and inaccurate, too/ Nice twisting of the facts a bit. I didn't say Wise should be charged with ah ate crime for not hiring Salaita. I said the state should look at Wise and determine if she violated the state hate crimes laws because she singled him out because of his race-based views. And I don't recall Salaita ever saying "Israel should be destroyed," although that's what the haters want people to believe. Salaita is an American. Israel is a foreign country. When are we going to start defending Americans who defend this country instead of foreign countries like Israel that put our principles to shame?


SaintClarence27 wrote on August 13, 2014 at 9:08 am

Thank you for clarifying what free speech actually *is* for people.

It does NOT mean "freedom from consequences."