Books Are Pretty

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Free Speech 101

Years ago when I was working as a waitress in a sports bar in Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood, I discovered that the new bartender that was killing time rewashing the pilsner glasses was also a native South Carolinian. After we’d found out each other’s hometowns, we moved on to the line of small talk that most inhabitants of small Southern states engage in – finding out if we knew people in common. Once we investigated each other’s college and high school alma maters, we moved on, of course, to churches. The bartender, it turned out, went to St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. St. Michael’s, back in the day, used to be known as an Anglican church, one that very pointedly remembered its roots as the church created by Henry VIII when he got tired of beheading wives and wanted to move onto divorcing them. Now it’s known mostly as one of the oldest churches in South Carolina, older, I think, than the state itself, and its parishioners are mostly residents of the very tony, very old money South of Broad neighborhood. South of Broad residents, creators of the Charleston Receipts, and if you have to ask, m’dear, then you aren’t one of the Quality, and if you aren’t one of the Quality, then you are no one at all.

“Yep, Anglicans,” mused the bartender, “the first Catholic splinter group.”

I agreed, drawling, “Just like the Catholics, honey, but far better dressed.”

After I made my little South of Broad joke, two things happened: the bartender cracked up, thrilled that somebody in Chicago knew his neighborhood enough to rip on it, and the waitress standing next to us burst into tears.

“I’m Catholic!” she screamed. “How dare you make fun of Catholics that way!”

“I wasn’t making fun of Catholics!” I said, startled.

“Yes, you were! You don’t know anything about my religion! How dare you talk about it!”

“I’m not making fun of your religion, Carrie,” I said, exasperated. “I’m making fun of his.” And with that I jerked my thumb toward the bartender, who was looking at her with a perplexed look on his face.

But she wasn’t having any of it. I was persecuting her, clearly, and she wasn’t going to have her religion impugned by the likes of me. She cried until the manager came in, then she cried to the manager, who also didn’t see the insult and had to have it explained to him, and I had to apologize, even though the bartender backed me up.

“Me!” he said, “she was going after me!”

All this because the South of Broad Charlestonians like their fashion.

My I-Was-Not-Catholic-Bashing experience, while exhausting by dint of sheer frustration, isn’t particularly unique. I think a lot of us have had the experience of some action or comment we made striking us back with a particularly noxious backlash. We could probably spend an evening swapping stories about that one time when our ridiculous friend, coworker, or other mommy in the playgroup totally took something the wrong way when, you know, it’s obvious to anyone who isn’t TOTALLY STUPID that you didn’t mean it that way at all. And then you had to apologize. So you’re sorry. Sorry that your coworker IS AN IDIOT.

If you find stories like these entertaining, and who doesn’t enjoy a story about a good person being plagued by pesky, hypersensitive fools, then you absolutely have to read Joseph Vogel’s Free Speech 101. It is the granddaddy of all Good Person Being Plagued By Pesky, Hypersensitive Fools stories. You may have heard about it. It not only made national news, but was even turned into a critically acclaimed documentary, This Divided State.

For those of you who don’t already know, here’s what happened to Joe in September of 2004: Vogel, then a twenty-three year old college student at Utah Valley State College, had been recently elected Student Body Vice President of Academics. The student government at UVSC had the somewhat unique privilege of being allowed to make relatively important decisions for the college, for the most part without giving any particular faculty member ultimate responsibility or veto power. Vogel was given a budget of 50,000 dollars for the academic year and the task of providing “academic opportunities and events for both the students and the community, which include[d] finding speakers.”

One morning at the beginning of the Fall term, Student Body President Jim Bassi sent an e-mail to Vogel with an attachment from the Greater Talent Network, an organization that was promoting Michael Moore’s Fall ’04 Campus Tour. Bassi’s e-mail read, in part, “Can you imagine the turnout?”

Vogel agreed, and began thinking roughly along these lines: “If we got Michael Moore to come speak, that would be a huge draw. Turnout would be big. And he’s such a controversial speaker. This would get a lot of press for the college. We’ve been wanting to get out of the shadow of BYU. This might do it. It’ll get a lot of people talking about the college, maybe stir up debate and controversy, raise the profile of the college.”

When he found that his budget was not big enough to afford Moore, who was asking (and getting) 40,000 dollars for a speaking fee and 10,000 for travel, he decided he could make the money back by selling $5 tickets to the public. If they filled half the auditorium, he calculated, they’d make half the money back and would put him back in budget. Okay! Let’s do it!

So he did. And then the school went nuts. And the town went nuts. And the state went nuts. And I mean nuts. The anti-Christ? Coming to the most conservative campus in the most conservative county in the most conservative state in the country?

“Half the state of Utah believed that UVSC was suddenly taking a sharp plunge into hell – and I was the one responsible for it,” Vogel wrote, and as he begins to detail the reaction of the community: the death threats, the lawsuits, the bribes, the insults, the bulletproof vests he was asked to wear, the yanked donations, the legislation put into place in Salt Lake City to take autonomy away from student governments, the state government punishing the school by refusing to fund a new library, you realize Vogel wasn’t exaggerating. He thought there’d be some controversy, sure, but nothing like this.

The college President, in a desperate effort to reach a compromise, forced Vogel and Bassi to hire conservative blowhard Sean Hannity for “balance,” although as Vogel points out, the conservative speakers the college had booked in the past, such as Alan Keyes and Orrin Hatch, never had a liberal speaker added after them to the schedule for balance.

As the outrages rises to unfathomable levels, Vogel gears up for a battle of wills, because what bothered him the most, as I hope will also bother you, is not that the people in the community did not want to hear Michael Moore speak. It was that they didn’t want anybody else to hear him speak, either. They did not want Moore sharing his liberal views with people who wanted to hear them in their town, and they tried to use their money, their lies, their threats of violence, and the manipulation of state laws to prevent it from happening.

As Vogel relates his narrative, he also delves into the whys of his opponents’ behavior. Was it because it was an election year? Was it because of the perceived red state/blue state divide? Was it because Moore was the “embodied enemy of truth, goodness, and patriotism,” and the thought that the college would pay such a person to speak was too much to bear? Did loathing for Michael Moore blind them to our Constitutionally protected right to free speech? Or worst of all, do conservatives fear free speech?

This is the question posed as a subtitle under the book’s title, and when reading the book, I couldn’t help feeling more sadness on Vogel’s behalf than outrage. Here is a very young adult, charged with making adult decisions for the first time, in the community in which he was raised and whose values he thought he shared. Is he a conservative? Yes. Does he love God and America and Mom and apple pie? Yes. Does he believe in the Constitution? Yes. And as a believer in the rightness and justice of the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights, he believes that minority speech should be protected. He believes that college is the place to hear all points of view, and to learn to think independently and critically. And to have his community turn on him so viciously for having such an earnest belief in the Constitution is heartbreaking. To watch a community that he'd previously perceived as “educated and enlightened” titter and giggle their way through Sean Hannity’s bullying speech, a lecture that strikes Vogel as a “hate rally,” is disillusioning. To be a kid standing against so many powerful adults shouting at him and threatening him for two months, adults he was raised to believe in and respect, is crushing. One adult in particular, Kay Anderson, gets so carried away with his quest for vengeance that he nearly becomes a cartoon villain, trying every trick in the book short of twirling a pencil-thin mustache while tying Vogel’s fiancée to the railroad tracks.

In the end it takes an outsider to accurately diagnose what ails the community. During an anti-Moore rally in the student center, Ephraim Amou-Berry, a student from Togo, West Africa, takes the microphone and says, “I come from a country where the freedom of speech does not exist. When I came here to study as a foreign student, I’m proud of something you guys have here, and you don’t know the value of it.”

According to Vogel, many in the audience were moved to tears by his impassioned pleas, but I saw Amou-Berry give this speech in the documentary This Divided State. I saw the majority of students letting his minority views fall on deaf ears. What a shame they were unable to simply do the same for Moore.

P.S. – And if you’re not interested in any of that, and you just want the scoop on exactly how big a tool Hannity is, you’re in luck. (Answer: Sean Hannity is a very, very big tool. Huge.)

Free Speech 101
by Joseph Vogel
To be released October 2, 2006
by Windriver Publishing
Paperback, 283 pp.
ISBN: 1-88624-9318

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