Peter Berger: Protecting free speech

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Peter Berger, who has taught English and history for 30 years and writes “Poor Elijah’s Almanack.” The column appears in several publications including the Times Argus, the Rutland Herald and the Stowe Reporter.

My grandmother chose her words carefully. She encouraged me to do the same. Our conversations often resembled a master’s thesis defense. From time to time she’d get a wistfully contrary look in her eye and almost imperceptibly shake her head. I valued her opinion and found her condescension – well, very condescending.

I’m nearly the age she was when we had our last conversation. I understand more now about her gentle condescension. It comes with being part of the passing of time.

When I went off to college, “colored people” was considered a politically unacceptable, disrespectful term. Two generations later I shook my head a little the first time I heard “people of color” spoken by a person of color as a term of respect.

The language of race keeps changing because the issue of race remains unsettled. But the changes also reflect the fact that while we all speak the same language, the words don’t always mean the same to you as they do to me.

The first time I heard “Black lives matter,” a question occurred to me that may have occurred to you. Why not “All lives matter,” especially if the premise of the movement is equality?

If tomorrow’s editorial headline announced that “Japanese-Americans’ rights matter,” most of us would reasonably question why the rights of that specific group required particular attention. If the headline appeared in 1942, however, when Japanese-Americans were being imprisoned in internment camps, the headline mission statement would make perfect sense. Japanese-Americans’ rights required special mention and protection because their rights were being especially violated.

Black lives particularly matter, not because they’re more important, but because Black lives in particular still suffer under what Lyndon Johnson lamented as our nation’s “crippling legacy of bigotry,” even to the point of death.

Not everyone has arrived at the same conclusion. One Vermont high school principal posted her opinion on her personal Facebook page. She stated definitively, “I firmly believe that Black Lives Matter,” but expressed reservations about “coercive measures taken to get this point across.” She affirmed she “understand[s] the urgency to feel compelled to advocate for Black lives,” but questioned what she deems pressure to “choose Black race over human race.” She extended support to “law enforcement” officers and “all others who advocate for and demand equity for all,” before concluding that “just because I don’t walk around with a BLM sign should not mean I am a racist.”

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Her school board members declared themselves “uniformly appalled” by the “ignorance, prejudice, and lack of judgment” she displayed in her statement, especially after she failed to issue a satisfactory “retraction and apology.” While her second post acknowledged that she’d “unintentionally offended” people, that she understands “the struggles of the Black lives community and stand[s] with them in their fight against racism,” the board held that she’d failed to admit her “culpability” or demonstrate “specific contrition,” “empathy,” or “humility.”

The board asserted the necessity of “acknowledging White Advantage,” “teaching all our students that bias exists,” and “working to remove it.” Citing the principal’s Facebook “public statements” as evidence of her “glaring miscomprehension of the situation,” board members voted unanimously to remove her from her position.

What if she’d posted she was voting for President Trump? Would that be evidence of “glaring miscomprehension”? He’d clearly do more harm to Black lives than Joe Biden would.

Again, I haven’t drawn all the same conclusions she has. Neither am I unsympathetic to the school board’s sense of moral obligation to confront the broad racial inequity and specific acts of racism still plaguing us.

I’m more alarmed, though, by the board’s actions than I am by hers.

I’ve always taught my students that the freedom of speech doesn’t mean you can say whatever you want whenever you want to. It also doesn’t mean your mother can’t tell you to be quiet. The First Amendment means that Congress, and by extension government at any level, can’t limit your right to speak your mind on matters of public concern.

While employers can restrict employees’ speech, public schools are agencies of the government. In 1968 the Supreme Court ruled that a “teacher’s interest as a citizen in making public comment must be balanced against the State’s interest in promoting the efficiency of its employees’ public services.” In that case a teacher named Pickering had been fired because he’d written a letter to the editor condemning his school board’s budgeting priorities. The court found that Mr. Pickering’s statements were “entitled to the same protection as if they had been made by a member of the general public,” and that “a teacher’s exercise of his right to speak on issues of public importance may not furnish the basis for his dismissal from public employment.” Pickering got his job back.

I’m not a lawyer. Neither is Vermont’s governor, though he described the principal’s dismissal as constitutionally “problematic.” That said, the board’s possible legal liability is of secondary importance to me.

I’m more concerned with why the Founders saw fit to protect free speech. They recognized that the free exchange of ideas and reflection on those ideas is essential for the survival of a free society. It’s also the hallmark of a free society.

It’s indefensible to contend that Black Lives Matter doctrine and tactics, however peaceful, are immune from questioning. Nor do I find the principal’s comments an “expression of ignorance and hate” or “insensitive to current issues.” Even if I did, restricting public debate just to ideas and perspectives I consider sufficiently sensitive mutes free speech and renders any debate all but meaningless. That I may disagree with her is beyond irrelevant. My disagreement is the very point of protecting her speech. Through the exchange of our ideas, she may change her mind. Or I might.

I have a final caution for Black Lives Matter advocates who’ve called for her removal. It applies to members of any movement.

Beware of doctrinal purity tests.

She may have reservations about your rhetoric, but there are worse banners than “All lives matter.” There are people for whom all lives, specifically Black lives, don’t matter.

It’s senseless and self-defeating to reject supporters who endorse your central principles just because they don’t use your words.

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