Wednesday, April 18, 2007

(This column of mine was published in Tuesday's Greenwich Time),0,5000660.column?coll=green-opinion-columnists

Is the right to free speech absolute? Does art need to be "fair and balanced"?

I've spent hours discussing these questions since my column on the cancellation -- or postponement, depending on who you talk to -- of the play "Voices in Conflict" at Wilton High School.

The most interesting yet disturbing conversation was via e-mail with 1st Lt. Zach Alessi-Friedlander, of the family whose protests managed to get the play canceled/postponed, who is currently serving in Iraq.

Lt. Alessi-Friedlander's position can be summed up by this, from his most recent e-mail to me: "High-school students are mostly under the age of 18 -- i.e. the age at which the government has determined that they are able to serve in the military and to vote in formal elections ... Prior to the age of 18, high-school-aged students are relieved of the responsibility of participating in our civic processes so that they may cultivate the critical thinking skills necessary to make these types of important decisions. You said in your response that Ms. Dickinson's ... students were intending to stimulate discussion and therefore are not required to do thesis work. I would counter this contention by saying that if these students want to take on a serious subject, then they must be prepared to do the serious work necessary not only to stimulate but to frame and develop a serious discourse."

I find his point of view problematic for many reasons. It's been many moons since I got my degree in politics, but I don't remember the Constitution limiting the right of free speech to those of voting age. But more than that, this script was written for a drama class, not for history, social studies or the debate club. A work of artistic expression shouldn't be expected to "frame and develop a serious discourse." It can, however, provide a vehicle through which serious discourse can take place. Art is meant to stimulate thoughts, emotions, beliefs or ideas. As an author, I'd argue that it is only able to do so by taking a stand.

Lt. Alessi-Friedlander feels the "pro-military service" point of view should be experienced by impressionable under-18s to counteract the arguably negative portrayal in "Voices in Conflict." But by allowing armed forces recruiters to set up shop in the school cafeteria, Principal Timothy Canty ensured that the military has a voice at Wilton High School. I find it extremely disturbing that it's fine for students to be exposed by on-campus recruiters to a one-sided portrayal of life in the service (do you think the soldiers currently serving in Iraq were told: "And by the way, we might just extend your tour of duty by five months while you're over there"?) but unacceptable for a drama class to present a play that explores other points of view on the conflict unless they do detailed study of the Middle East situation.

Lt. Alessi-Friedlander and I agree on one thing: "that freedom of speech is a privilege and a right; it is an extraordinary tool for shaping our nation's present and future." However, here's where we part ways: "In an abstract intellectual sense, the principal of free speech is absolute. However, in a practical sense, we must be willing to do the hard thinking and work necessary for free speech's most effective application."

I don't believe that free speech is absolute only in an "abstract intellectual sense," and that we are only guaranteed that right if we are willing to pursue with intellectual rigor every topic we wish to discuss in the public domain. The blessing (and yes, sometimes curse) of our Constitution is that any nut job has the right to speak out. Take Ann Coulter, for example.

I do agree with Lt. Alessi-Friedlander that, "We must, as a country, work harder to make the public discourse more serious -- and this starts with how we train the younger generation in school."But here's where I think both Principal Canty and the Alessi-Friedlander family have got it wrong.The Socratic Method is the oldest technique of fostering critical thinking, in which a teacher does not give information directly but rather asks a series of questions, continually challenging students' assumptions and logic, with the result that the class attains knowledge by answering the questions and, often as a result, deeper awareness of the limits of knowledge.Why not present the play and then lead discussions using the Socratic Method?

Surely a lesson in expression and critical discussion is better than one in suppression and intolerance?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Vote for Ed Liturski and Jeannine Pratt.
Keep LOVE and Vicki Fyke out of the school system!

7:24 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home