If you think that a conservative, Republican congressman from South Carolina and rapper Kanye West don’t have much in common, you should reconsider. Both of them seem to share a profound love for the sound of their own voice. Put more delicately, both have an unquestionable devotion to free speech. After all, weren’t they just expressing their opinions publically? The problem is not what they said. Rather, it is the utter lack of decorum they displayed while expressing themselves. It is an inherent danger in a free society that public decency may fall victim to private freedoms.
What shocks us most about these events is that they both occurred in very formal and public settings. Congressman Joe Wilson (R-SC) stood up on the floor of the House of Representatives and interrupted President Barack Obama himself — and it wasn’t even during one of those times when only C-SPAN is watching. But of course the House floor has always had its share of fist fights and name calling. West, however, proved that even that last bastion of high society — the MTV Video Music Awards — is no longer sacred. These are not isolated incidents. They are just highly visible examples of people who believe they have the right to say anything they want in any way they wish.
But there are other examples of this phenomenon that may seem more normal to us. If you have ever been to a political protest, you have probably seen a sign so vulgar you feel ashamed to share the views of whoever is holding it. Even if you’re simply minding your own business, you may notice the car in front of you sporting a bumper sticker with the words, “I’m having a nice day. Don’t fuck it up.” All of these activities are protected by our rights to freedom of speech.
But perhaps certain restrictions should be placed on how we say things in public settings. The College of William and Mary, like the House or even the VMAs, is a public space and a certain amount of decorum should be expected. This is not to say that certain ideas cannot be expressed, but we should express our ideas in certain ways. Is there really anything worth saying that can only be expressed through vulgarity, insults or interruptions?
Reconciling this notion with the right to free speech is a complex problem and one the College has had to face. Perhaps you may remember that early last semester the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education declared the College a “red light” school, or one that restricts the freedom of speech of students. They specifically cited a line in the student handbook which reads, “All signs, posters and banners must conform to acceptable community standards.” They determined that this policy was a violation of free speech.
It seems to me that this policy is a good method for balancing free speech and decency. At least in theory, the policy dictates that students need to decide what is proper and what is not. As members of the community, we have a responsibility not only to criticize what we find indecent, but also to examine our own actions through the same lens. We should try to use this policy outside the College as well. Generally, however, we don’t seem to be very good at it.
We seem to actually reward flagrant indecency. Since Wilson’s outburst, money has been pouring into his campaign, and he has been catapulted from a minor politician directly into the limelight. West may benefit from his indiscretion as well. After all, celebrities operate under the age-old maxim that any publicity is good publicity. Furthermore, concerning political protests, it seems the more outrageous they are, the more media coverage they get. As things stand now, indecency seems to be a staple of public life. In a world where attention easily translates into popularity and power, the shock value of vulgarity has become a powerful tool.
E-mail Ed Innace at firstname.lastname@example.org.