Thursday, May 25, 2006

Column on Bush on Free Expression

Bush Doesn?t Quite Get It

Tibor R. Machan

When that Colorado teacher compared President George W. Bush to Adolph
Hitler in one of his classes?saying later that this was only one side of a
controversy he had been covering and he would get to the other side
soon?the president himself was asked about it when he addressed some
newspaper publishers the next day in Washington. And he nearly got it
right, but not quite. Bush said ?I think people ought to be allowed to
criticism me all they want, and they do? and added, ?There are some
certain basic freedoms that we?ve got to protect, the freedom of people to
express themselves.?

The president is of course basically right, except for some ill chosen
terms?it isn?t a matter of what we ?ought to be allowed? to do but what we
have a right to do. (When you talk of allowing people to do this or that,
it presupposes that someone has the authority to issue permissions that
could also be withheld, which isn?t so in the case of rights.) What is not
evident in what Bush said is whether he understands the relationship
between the right of free speech or expression and the nature of public
schools. The importance of this is illustrated well by the fact that
Republicans in Colorado went to work on a bill, after this incident, that
would make it possible to fire teachers who do not present both sides of a

In other words, when it comes to government administered realms of our
society, the right of freedom of expression runs smack into conflict with
the democratic principle that the voters, through their elected and
appointed officials, are authorized to manage such realms. Just as the
Federal Communications Commission has the legal authority to banish Howard
Stern from broadcast radio and may dictate to TV and radio stations
various policies they must follow (because they operate on the public
airwaves), so administrators of public schools, from elementary to
university levels, have the authority to set policy. Which means, that
unless teachers have a contract with these administrators that spells out
a contractual (but not basic) right to say what they choose in the course
of teaching a course, they have to abide by school policy. And because
school policy is subject to the political process, it may or may not grant
the privilege to teachers to say what the choose to say in their class

This is especially so in primary and secondary public schools where there
isn?t a strong tradition of academic freedom?the usually observed college
and university policy of not interfering with how professors teach their
courses, especially once they have tenure. Even this is not without some
exceptions. I cannot conduct my business ethics classes by just telling
jokes or discussing global warming or abortion. I must keep to the
announced topic.

In private schools, of course, all kinds of different arrangements and
agreements can be hatched as far as what?s in and what?s out in various
courses being taught. But that?s not so in public schools, mainly because
the public realm is governed by various administrative rules, some of them
going all the way up to the U.S. Constitution. Yes, this would make it
appear that the First Amendment reins supreme at public schools but
clearly that?s not so?the democratic processes can trump it, just as it
can trump whether some Nazis or KKK group can use a public park to
advocate their vile creed.

Which all goes to reinforce the point that a prerequisite of what
president Bush stated, namely, ?There are some certain basic freedoms that
we?ve got to protect, the freedom of people to express themselves,? is the
protection of private property rights. Only if those rights are firmly
protected and maintained will free expression also gain firm protection.
For if a speaker?teacher, pundit, preacher, or the like?is expressing
himself or herself on public (i.e., government) property, the basic
freedoms the president was talking about will often have to yield to the
will of the (voting) people!

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