Lessons in Free-Speech from the Silence of a Dead Mic

Jon Pollard ejects Peter Butera from the podium after Butera’s microphone is cut. Photo: NY Daily News

Last Friday, American football fields resonated with the sound of 3.5 million youths leaving behind the locker-lined hallways and period bells symbolic of high-school adolescence. Within a day, four years of existence were crystallized and set alight- each vivacious life, donning the overly ceremonial gown, honored for their cast role before dissolving into the sea of black-and-white faces of a forgotten year book. And perhaps Peter Butera would have been among the faded masses had it not been for the educational administrators of Luzerne County, Pennsylvania. As Butera spoke before his classmates, bidding them farewell and expressing hopes for meaningful student involvement in school administration, administrators disconnected Butera’s microphone for perceiving the speech as critical.

The ensuing media fanfare was met with a volley of trite rationalizations from school administrators. Superintendent Janet Serino defended the action, blaming the microphone disconnection on Butera’s choice to deviate from the pre-approved script, while principal Jon Pollard stated that the occasion was “not the venue for that type of discord”. Bluntest of them all, school board president Beth Gober-Mangan declined to even “second guess the call”.

Placing aside the whiffs of blatantly corroborative “ass-covering”, the debacle reawakens the eminently timeless, yet somehow incredibly tired, issue of free speech rights- timeless, for its near-universal embrace by Americans of each age and creed; tired, for the dulling ambiguity of piety to an ideological value with insufficient pragmatic clarity. For of what value is a notion held in vacuum, or a few lines on yellowed paper in the vaults of the National Archives, in and of itself? Presumably not a great deal, if the founding ideals of the such great United States of America may be questioned by an 18-year-old wearing a ridiculous tasseled cap and a frumpy bunch of authoritarian school officials.

Far more worthwhile, and far more fraught, are the functional and empirical qualities of the practice of free speech, without which the statement of rights is but empty lip-service. Among that obstructing such a workable understanding of free speech, a notable two are placed in the spotlight by the aforementioned incident.

Serino and Pollard exemplify the first: a belief that free speech is constrained by the appropriateness of the occasion and venue. A high-school graduation, as implied by Pollard, is a dissent-free proceeding; Pollard states, “I needed to ensure that no one was offended”. Who these offended parties might be is unknown; at least, Pollard must not have been referring to Butera’s graduating class, who received the cut-short speech with standing ovation.

More hazardous is the insinuation that those in power sense it their right to both fabricate a one-sided vision of the nature of a given occasion, and enforce it by unceremoniously ejecting any offender from the podium. By what principle is a graduation declared “dissent-free”, and by what law is it an occasion during which the school administration cannot be criticized, only praised? In whose authority are dissenters silenced and asked to leave?

The desire, on the part of school administration, for smooth proceedings is beyond understandable- sympathetic, even- but enforceable it must not be! For in doing so, the graduation is unrightfully removed from the domain of free speech. A free society must create for itself neither occasion nor enclaves of non-freedom. One cannot claim belief in the value of free-speech, then design an event during which speech is explicitly scripted and regulated by some contrived quality of the occasion. Free-speech is no mere disembodied idea; it transpires in time, its cries resonate in the physical molecules of the air. It necessarily occurs in some occasion or another, for occasions are the pragmatic medium of speech. Those of mind with Serino and Pollard invest themselves of the power to declare, “Now is not the time for free speech”, but who has named them time-keepers of liberty?

Such sentiments bleed into the second obstruction, one distilled from online forum discourses: venues and occasions are property, and their owners are not obligated to furnish anyone the use of said venue or occasion to express contrary views. This view is absolutely erroneous in the particular circumstance of Peter Butera; both valedictorian and elected class president, Butera occupied the role of graduation speaker by the democratic mandate of his peers. And it is Butera and his peers that are the proprietors of both the occasion and venue; is it not the celebration of students, in which they have natural right to determine proceedings? Even if it must be reduced to the meanest of quantitative terms, is it not the tax dollars of the student body and their families that have placed and compensated the administrators in their lofty seats?

But more generally, the notion that perceived ownership of a venue bestows the prerogative to suppress free speech within is insidious in and of itself. As has been earlier established, speech is physical, and if so-called venue owners each and all enforce their own version of the Bill of Rights, then there is no free-speech at all. The school officials preside over graduation; the online administrators manage over forum boards; the internet corporations bridle user-run sites. And so moving between the spheres that commonly host speech is but moving from one set of privately-imposed speech restrictions to another. What is amounted to are then restrictions on the physical spaces which practical free-speech requires to become a feasible reality.

In response to such libertarian arguments for free-speech, another two objections arise. Too often is the stale, insipid case of crying “fire” in the theater trotted out in such discussions as grounds for curtailing speech. To those espousing such drivel, the author would assure that the pages of history are stained with far more blood spilled over the suppression of free-speech than the over-exercising of it.

More substantial, and worthy of consideration, are the cases of online “trolling”, bullying, harassment, and their myriad in-bred ilk. It must be conceded that free-speech can at times transmute into the very anti-thesis of itself- that is, speech whose crafted purpose is to suppress free-speech. Speech must never be treated as a necessarily moral entity, and can be fashioned into the very weapons that threaten its own liberties. Rhetoric that is used to effectively discourage or silence the voices of others is not free-speech, and is intrinsically a restriction on free-speech itself. However, there exists no clear boundary line demarcating the point at which speech becomes suppression. It is a subjective matter too far under the sway of individual circumstance and collective sensibilities. But in murky waters, it is far preferable to place fewer restrictions on speech than more.

Free speech as ideological conviction is worthless if displaced of pragmatic facilitation. A bastion pillar of democratic society and progress, the kryptonite of despotism and corruption, must be afforded utmost physical dimension to flourish within. If instead practical space is atomized into such-and-such occasions, so-and-so’s venues, each with their constrictions from a prescribed authority in person or custom, then free-speech will be stifled from growth in a Swiss-cheese society that writes exceptions to its most treasured beliefs.