Thursday, September 01, 2005

Free* Speech 101

The department decided to do away with History of Mass Media sometime last year. Shoot, why should college students learn anything about the beginnings of the greatest single influence (other than their parents) on their lives? The department chair blew off the course, even when we teachers of it tried to explain that the Reagan babies weren't quite sure which came first, TV or radio. That they are unfamiliar with the contributions to what we think of as mass media made by, say, Ben Franklin, William Randolph Hearst and Edward R. Murrow. (About the only thing they can tell you about Franklin is that his picture is on the $100 bill.)

When I taught Mass Media, I went all the way back to the Great Library at Alexandria and worked my way up to the World Wide Web (the two share interesting similarities). As a huge lecture class -- enrollment could top 100 per section -- Mass Media drew a broad range of students. Frosh took it as the gateway to the corp/comm major. Seniors came for an easy elective and ended up loving it. My goal was always to leave them with a new vocabulary for media topics, so as they progressed to the upper-level courses, they wouldn't be the ones asking other profs mid-lecture to explain what Nielsen ratings are or who owns the Internet.

Replacing Mass Media this fall is History of the First Amendment. A journo-colleague is the adjunct teaching it. I ran into him at an event the other night and he told me about his first day of class. There are nearly 100 kids in his section, 80 percent of them first-years. It's an 8 a.m. class, so many of those younger students got him as their first college prof on the first day of big school.

He began his first class with a lecture about free speech, specifically dealing with uses in media of the word "fuck." A bold move, to be sure. But a surefire way of getting the attention of a hall packed with nervous new students.

If any of them were uncomfortable with profanity, he warned, they should drop the class, because future lectures and discussions would look at what some would consider objectionable language and its uses in media and society.

Nobody budged or whimpered so he soldiered on and finished the F-word lesson.

But that afternoon his phone rang--the dept/chair letting him know that a student had left class that morning at 9;15, called her daddy, daddy called the dean, the dean called the chair and she was calling him. Not exactly to say cool it on the f-word lessons, but, well.... you know.

In the media they'd call this "the chilling effect."

It's a course in free speech. How free is yet to be determined.


Anonymous Max said...

While I understand the desire of the lecturer to grab his students' attention, the example chosen seems unfortunately infantile. If I was a student in his class I would not be shocked, but rather offended by the banality of the example chosen to illustrate such an important issue.

PS. How unfortunate that my first comment should be negative! You have a great blog.

12:30 PM  
Blogger The Calvinator said...

Oh, the irony!

12:31 PM  
Blogger Yvette said...

My roommate and I had a good laugh over this one as we couldn't help ourselves. Personally, I hope the poor dear doesn't end up visiting Australia anytime soon, where people use profanity in amazing ways...

3:26 PM  
Anonymous Max said...

Just to play the Devil's Advocate (yes, I'm bored!), what would readers' reaction have been if the lecturer had used the dreaded c-word instead of the f-word. A debate about levels of profanity perhaps?

4:28 PM  
Blogger Lisa said...

Hilarious. That is, if it wasn't so sad.

Professor, how might one extend a speaking invitation to you? I thought there was a link to your email address on the site, but cannot find it. I would prefer to email you personally instead of posting the invite here. :)

5:10 PM  
Blogger Kevin said...

For some reason I'm reminded of the occasion where there was a strong attempt to censor 'Fahreinheit 451' for highschools in the US. Someone asked Ray BRadbury about it in an interview and his entire comment was "Do I even need to say anything at this point?"

Pity that you were forced to lose the History of Mass Media course. I'm a postgraduate Film, Television and Media Studies student at Auckland University in New Zealand, and that sounds like the kind of paper we'd love to have. - The Unshaven.

5:22 PM  
Blogger theprofessor said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

6:08 PM  
Blogger theprofessor said...

To contact me, send your phone number or other info to

Happy to do speaking engagements.


6:20 PM  
Blogger Greg - Cowboy in the Jungle said...

I took a class at SHSU called "Human Sexuality," oddly enought taught by Dr. Johnson.

His intro on the first day entailed writing the word, "F U C K" across the large white board. He wrote it so large that the students in the back of the 200 capacity auditoruim could see it.

He then began to explain how this word would not be used in his class due to its vagueness and he launched into a George Carlin routine.

Who the fuck are you? What the fuck is that? We are fucking lost. Fuck you! We were fucking...

I don't have to go on. You get the fucking picture.

Any way... Some one apparently knew about this and replaced the dry erase marker with a PERMANENT one. It took a month before the white board was clean. Every class that came through that auditoruim saw it. I never heard, but I assume that there was a chilling effect associated with that blunder too.

7:17 PM  
Blogger Jenny D. said...

Here's a good one: A stats prof in an intro stats PhD course offered this on the first day.

In an effort to make clear a population and distribution, he asked students to offer up their GRE scores. He went around the room. The international students, in particular, were horrified.

So he plotted the scores, and did some stats thing.

Then he asked students to tell him how often they had oral sex in the last month.


He apparently never realized that this was a bad question to ask, and he got some stats, and did his thing.

Oh. And he didn't get tenure.

9:56 PM  
Anonymous Auntie A said...

I suppose that as a high school teacher, I am much more aware of what can and can not be said in the classroom. At least, I should be, I've had to sit through the lectures often enough (and so has every other teacher in my school).

What would I tell my students is that with free speech comes responsibilities, using the 'You can't shout "Fire" in a crowded theatre and claim free speech' story. It always got their attention.

It sounds like your professor friend used a wee bit of poor judgement in what he thought he could say. I'm frankly surprised that only one student called and complained. Your professor friend may think he's dealing with adults but he's not. Something, I'm certain, you already know. The students may look like adults and may even act a bit like adults but they're not.

He has to watch what he says, surprise! I always looked at the 'We don't want you saying (blank)' as a challenge to say exactly what I wasn't supposed to say but in different words.

11:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

it's just a word.. puritans, get over it..

2:55 AM  
Anonymous Max said...

Nigger also is just a word.

7:25 AM  
Blogger Eh Nonymous said...

How unfortunate that Max, auntie a, and anonymous above should be so clueless.

The lecturer should have used a far stronger word than the anglo-saxon for fornicate, and should have used it over and over and over until people fainted. _That_ would be a teachable moment.

Language means something. Language used to shock may be infantile; but language must be _used_, and its use must be protected. To be polite is nice; to be critical does not require filth; but to insist on decorum in the classroom, among supposed young adults, is to risk inanity.

I'm coming at this as a vulgarian; as a lawyer strongly in favor of free speech and strongly opposed to racist incitement to violence and/or true threats; and as a fan of linguistics.

I invite anyone interested in those particular topics to come on over to my blawg. We'll hang out, discuss curse words, and have a filthy good time. Also discuss Miller v. California and Schenk v. U.S.

10:49 AM  
Anonymous Max said...

Ah yes, the old clueless argument. Quite irrefutable.

Interesting mental image of a class taught by a vulgarian: flushing, flustered students fainting in the crowded lecture hall while a frenzied, wild-eyed professor screams FUCKING CUNT every second sentence in an hysterical attempt to educate his charges on the "Three-Pronged Test" for obscenity.

Socrates would be proud.

11:57 AM  
Blogger RR said...

How interesting that the professor is living as an example of what I always say about free speech! Many people in the U.S. know that they can say what they want (subject to the standard legal exclusions) while failing to realize that there are consequences to what they say. The professor may have a right to say "the f-word" in class, but I hope he realized that he might get in a wee bit of trouble for doing so. I hope he realized that his students have the right to voice their disapproval (just as other students have the right to voice their approval to the school's governing body).

1:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

>nigger also is just a word.

and african american peope use it all the time.. so what's your point??

1:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a kid of the 80s I would like to refute that we don't know which came first--tv or radio. The only reason that one might make that mistake would be to have had to memorize dates when those technologies were born AND when they became available as mass media. When radio in peoples' homes was still new, various inventors were out buggering around with television of lots of different kinds, but it didn't come to homes till much later, of course. (I actually love reading about early tv experiments, and seeing recordings made on anondized silver records.)

On the other hand, we've been told so many different things about the media from so many different sources that sometimes it's confusing to put together.

My liberal instructors told me that Fox and its ilk were under the power of the government, more or less, and were too conservative.

The conservatives, on the other hand, label the media as "too liberal."

Nobody seems to want to lay claim to "the media" at large.

When I taught a course in which we were supposed to teach students to use rhetorical analysis to break down news reports, I generally spent my time showing them that they've been exposed to rhetoric of one sort or another since birth--we watched 80s commercials and cartoons and compared them to the modern day variety. All I really hoped for was that they walked out realizing that they had to really listen to what was being said and not immediately assume "liberal" or "conservative" in order to judge the news appropriately.

4:40 PM  
Blogger Greg - Cowboy in the Jungle said...

I think we may have uncovered the paradox of effective speech and effective communication.

I may be free (constitutionally speaking) to use words like fuck, shit, ass, and nigger. But if I am to have effective communication, I have to watch my language. There in lies the difference between censorship and discretion.

I'll give you an example. If I'm stuck in a ditch and an Asian man comes along, I need to communicate with him that I need assistance. If I say, "Pardon me. can you help me out of the ditch?" he is more likey to assist than if I said, "Hey you fucking chink! Get my ass out of this goddamned ditch."

The ability to speak in that manner does not necessarily justafy a need. we have to construct our communications in a manner that we get what we want and that means being cognizant of others and their perceptions.

Happy Speaking!

7:41 PM  
Blogger daveawayfromhome said...

One element that I think is missing from this discussion is the simple fact that swearing is fun. Just the actual movement of the lips and tongue, the decision to roll the words out or spit them. Swearing is an entertainment as much as it is a communication, which is part of why George Carlin's routine was so funny. Ever hear a Russian swear? Priceless!

2:25 AM  
Blogger Kevin said...

Greetings Prof.

Quick question: Do you have a livejournal at all? I ask because I've climbed into the habit of posting works-in-progress behind a Friends-Lock and waiting for them to be cruel to them so I can get feedback for polishing. I'd be interested in what you think of them for obvious reasons, but I also get the impression you're busy and deluged with that form of request. Heh.

This would be more casual, and I wouldn't bug you. Promise.

- The Unshaven.

2:15 PM  
Blogger Poppy said...

FUCK FUCK FUCK - there I said it and that feels good. Now, if you were offended, you already knew what it meant, so get over it already.

I would really like to follow the young lady (and I go to SMU, so I use this term loosely), around and see how many times she actually uses a word with a similar connotation to fuck. Trust me, even rich girls use profanity.

With that being said, there is a little thing I believe has been ignored here, context of the situation. The professor wasn't saying "Fuck me now you blonde bitch," or "You should have seen the piece of ass I fucked last night." It was in the context, from the sounds of it, about the taboos and stigmas attached to certain words. You can say that someone had sex, or made love, or "did it." Fuck means THE SAME THING PEOPLE. The only reason its censored is because people can be too easily offended.

It was a college class, those students should be adults, they have heard that word before, they are going to hear it again, and they do need to get over it. My friend has to look at old naked wrinkled men two nights a week, because she is an art history major and has to take a painting class. I have yet to hear of her daddy calling to complain because his daughter saw a wrinkly scrotum. GET OVER IT!

4:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was in the free speech class. The context of using "The F Word" in the class was a SPECIFIC CASE that the United States Supreme Court decided in the 1970s -- Cohen v. California, commonly known by law students as the "Fuck the Draft" case, as that was the term being challenged. That is the circumstance which was used to explain how the Court ruled this word WAS PROTECTED SPEECH. By the example, the prof was warning students that this was the kind of speech we would be discussing and that if that bothered them, they shouldn't take the class. For the sad, judgmental, uninformed "Max" to repeatedly use examples like "The N Word" and "The C Word" is to be provocative without context, to imbue the word itself with importance and try to insult people. That was not the professor's intent and if people could only remove themselves from their own smugness, maybe they could see that.

9:57 AM  
Blogger Red River said...

I agree that it was pretty poor judgement on the prof's part.

While I am not necessarily offended by profanity, I am offended if someone wastes my time.

Let's see, we can discuss a minor case of Constitutional Law *OR* go over Aeropagitica.

I spend $1K per hour at SMU and the prof wastes 1/13 of $4,000 discussing the F word.

I'd be pretty pissed, too.

Just another example of why I stopped going to SMU. There were a lot of immature people on both sides of the lectern.

6:49 PM  
Blogger Lizett! said...

Maybe you should consider teaching at Colgate. This article on MSNBC is about "helicopter parents" and what some schools are trying to do to lessen their influence. Who knows if any more schools will actually take on these policies.

11:03 PM  
Anonymous Auntie A said...

You know eh nonymous, you're going to walk into a doorway one day with your nose in the air like that.

Yes, in theory, the professor should be free to use whatever language he wants to make his point, the class is made up of adults right?

Wrong. Simply because you can do something doesn't mean you should. And just because his students look like adults doesn't mean they are.

Theory is great but I don't live in it. I live in the Real World, where if I wanted to keep teaching in public schools (high schools) like I have for the past five years, I have to watch what I say.

Or to look at it another way, when you are arguing a case before a judge or writing a brief or taking a deposition, do you use profanity to get your point across? If not, why not? You are free to use whatever language you want, aren't you?

1:35 AM  
Anonymous Cold Potato said...

1)The kid who called daddy:
--I would like to know a little more about their sex life, ie. when was the last time they "had one".
--Did she just immigrate from Victorian Era England?
--Or was it Daddy's fault? Did she call home on her first day to say she was having a great time with profs who knew when to "fuck" political correctness, and Daddy flipped out?

2)This is a course on "Free" Speech and the First Amendment, yes?
--Taking a class on the First Amendment means exposing yourself to things like "fuck", "shit", "nigger", and other topics that people have tried with various sucess to eradicate from our language.
--The french tried this.(That would be an interesting first sentance to a book) They tried to regulate their language, word police et all, but were unsucessfull in the world of "le McDonnalds"

3)As for the dean and chair, they are educationologists and administrators of the worst sort who (I have a feeling) will die alone and friendless.

Free is free unless you are in America, the land of the free.

1:59 PM  
Blogger Kevin said...

I did a paper once whose entire basis was exploring the construction of sexuality through and in film. A lot of the discussions in the class were based around the idea of throwing preconceptions out and reasoning through things.

This involved discussions like:

"Paedophilia is wrong. Fine. WHY? What are the reasons?"

At which point the majority of the class clammed up, went bright red and couldn't deal.

I had fun though. Philosophical arguments one on one with the lecturer, within a tutorial group of 40.

- The Unshaven.

2:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is nothing new... as a pretty new prof I explained to the class that using the term "cult" was as offensive to me as the use of the word "nigger" was to others.

By noon that day I had two (identical.. form??) letters telling me that my use of the term "nigger" had such an alamring and silencing impact that, were I to contintue to use it, I would be reported...

The sad thing was that I wasn't really using the word at all, just mentioning it as an example -- and, as it turned out -- BOTH of those students were not educationally ready for college, and they dropped out of school... I suppose it is no shock, as they couldn't see the differnece between the use and mention of the term "nigger"...

6:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

just the other day the CEO of our big company said, "hey you white trash and niggers, get the fuck to work, your all fucking worthless"

professors should think about the real world with a real job. fucking coeds at 50+ must be fucking impressive to the cunts.

7:44 PM  
Blogger theprofessor said...

My weekend activities are pathetic? Not sure where that comes from. I do the bulk of my work on weekends, writing my column for the Dallas Observer. This past weekend I was writing and editing for a special section coming up at the end of the month. I used to get hate mail from newspaper readers who always ended their screeds with "get a life." Weak.

11:13 AM  

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