The censorious ettin has two heads.* One head is the state and its minions — thugs willing to abuse their power to censor under the color of law. But we'd be remiss to forget the other head. It is us — or, at least, those among us who run butthurt to the state, sniveling, when we encounter expression we don't like.
Dateline: Tennessee — already a place with a few issues with free speech. The FIRE's Torch blog alerts us to the story of Democratic State Representative Joe Armstrong, who became upset that the student bookstore at University of Tennessee-Knoxville was selling defamatory candy. How can candy be defamatory, you might ask, possibly throwing a few swears in there for effect? Well, apparently it can be if it looks like this:
Armstrong — who may or may not be on some Tennessee legislative committee devoted to regulating defamatory food products and novelty items — found these mints defamatory, and persuaded the bookstore (which had carried similar mints lampooning President Bush for years without incident) to remove them from the shelves.
"When you operate on state and federal dollars, you ought to be sensitive to those type of politically specific products," Armstrong said. "If it was a private entity or corporation or store, (that's different), but this is a state university. We certainly don't want in any way to put the university in a bad light by having those political (products), particularly aimed at defaming the president."
I realize that it is out of fashion for legislators sworn to uphold the constitution to have a passing familiarity with it, just as it is outre for lawmakers to grasp laws. But implying that President Obama is a "disappointment" cannot possibly be defamatory, because it is an expression of inherently subjective opinion, not a statement of fact susceptible to accusations of truth or falsity. Only an idjit, or someone unconcerned with the actual meaning of words, would say otherwise. Rep. Armstrong no doubt meant that the mints were defamatory in the sense that he personally disagreed with their message, which is the way that censorious twats generally use the word.
Now, any citizen — legislator or not — can try to convince any bookstore not to carry a book or a tin of mints. That itself is not censorship. But how do you suppose the manager of the bookstore felt when a state legislator — someone with substantial power over the university's funding and fate — came to demand that something be removed from the store? Do you suppose that felt voluntary to the manager? Do you suppose that Armstrong meant for it to feel voluntary?
Armstrong is the censor in this story — the first head of the ettin — wielding not overt laws but a nice-store-shame-if-something-happened-to-it power. It's the other head of the ettin I want to point out to you:
Armstrong said he got a call from a student who was bothered by the depiction of the president, and the legislator followed up Tuesday with a visit to the bookstore in the basement of the University Center. There, he purchased a box of the $2.99 mints and had a conversation with director David Kent, who ultimately removed product from the shelves. About 30 tins were removed.
That's right. Somewhere at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, there is a student who went to the bookstore, saw a tin of mints that was mildly critical of the President, and was so upset that he or she called a state representative to complain.
These people walk among us.
*Yes, I just combined a D&D reference with a Song of Ice and Fire reference. I'm in a geeky mood. Deal with it, bitches.
Last 5 posts by Ken White
- Free Speech Triumphant Or Free Speech In Retreat? - June 21st, 2017
- The Power To Generate Crimes Rather Than Merely Investigate Them - June 19th, 2017
- Free Speech, The Goose, And The Gander - June 17th, 2017
- Free Speech Tropes In The LA Times - June 8th, 2017
- I write letters - June 1st, 2017