Thursday, January 01, 2004

Rights & Reason: Civil Rights vs. Common Sense

Glenn Reynolds posted this selection from a story in the Washington Times:
The 17-year-old junior says that stance inspired threats from which teachers have refused to protect him. Some faculty members even started a public campaign against his group. . . In a telephone interview, Tim said he's been threatened at least three times . . . . One boy said he was going to "find someone" to beat up Tim. In two of those instances, Tim said two faculty members stood by and did nothing to help him.
Reynolds suggests the Justice department should look into this matter for potential violations of the student’s civil rights, because of “the apparent complicity of state employees in the suppression of speech they find disagreeable.” Based on my reading of the same story, Reynolds is wrong.

First, let’s provide some context. The student, Tim Bueler, founded a Conservative Club at his public high school. The club’s stated mission is to promote “the pillars of the Bible, patriotism and conservative beliefs as balance to the mostly liberal viewpoints of teachers.” The club’s newsletter published an article by Bueler criticizing illegal immigration. The Times cites one passage from the article: “Liberals welcome every Muhammad, Jamul and Jose who wishes to leave his Third World state and come to America.” Bueler says he was threatened by other students, that one teacher refused to help him deal with the threats, and that several teachers have called him a “Nazi” and a “bigot”. The Times quotes a biology teacher, Mark Alton, as calling on students to “take a stand against the neo-conservative wing-nuts who call themselves Americans.” This was in response to the Conservative Club’s maintenance of a “liberal assault hotline” designed to report incidents of teachers that “verbally assault” conservative students.

Alton said he doesn’t oppose the Conservative Club’s presence, but adds, “[w]hat bothers me is the extreme views that border on racism or homophobia, the negative tone, and the hotline that calls teachers ‘traitors’.”

Neither side here—Bueler or the opposing teachers and students—seem to exhibit much in the way of rational or mature behavior. But based on the information provided in the Times, it doesn’t add up to a federal civil rights violation. First, Bueler appears to have gone out of his way to upset the entire school. This is not a case where a student is being singled out merely because he expressed an unpopular opinion. Second, there is no evidence in the article that speech was suppressed. Far from it: Bueler’s club remains operational and no threats have been acted upon. Furthermore, the teachers have responded by defending themselves from Bueler’s verbal attacks. I don’t think civil rights law requires teachers to stand there and not respond what they believe are false accusations, be it from a student or anyone else. Yes, the “Nazi” and “bigot” remarks are out of line, but I’m not sure what can be done about that in the setting of a government school. A private school principal could discipline or fire a teacher who treated a student that way; public school administrators generally lack that ability because of state tenure laws and union contracts. As for the threats against Bueler, assuming they’re genuine, the state and local authorities already have laws in place to deal with this behavior. I presume the entire state of California isn’t part of the conspiracy to silence Bueler’s important message.

This leaves only the issue of the principal telling Bueler to stay home for a few days. I don’t necessarily agree with this move, but again, it doesn’t suggest to me a federal civil rights violation. I’d certainly like more information before even considering Glenn’s call for John Ashcroft to get involved. Once again, context is essential. If you have a student who is deliberately making himself a target by, in essence, calling on students to rebel against “liberal” teachers, you have an order and discipline issue. I’m going to assume the school would act if someone actually hurt Bueler. But given that he’s just inspired hatred, what exactly should the principal do? Should he give special protection to Bueler? If so, you’ve just invited every malcontent student to make even more inflammatory remarks. Would Glenn call for a civil rights inquiry if the school asked a student who went around insulting Jews to stay home until things calmed down?

The larger problem I see in stories like this is the intellectual decay of the conservative movement. From what the Times reports, Bueler strikes me as a pretty pathetic activist. He’s probably read too much Ann Coulter and listened to too much Bill O’Reilly. Rather than advocate his ideas in a responsible manner, Bueler seems more comfortable with cheap stunts designed to annoy his enemies.

You see a lot of this inflammatory confrontation in the young conservative movement. It’s become a modern form of feminism, emphasizing the victim status of conservatives at the hands of the liberal establishment. Conservatives lash out because they believe no thinking person will listen to them otherwise. The standard of success for these conservatives is not winning converts to their side, but making the other side as angry as possible. This explains, in part, the popularity of “affirmative action bake sales” on many college campuses.

None of this suggests Bueler and his ilk aren’t entitled to full First Amendment protection. But let’s keep that in context as well. The First Amendment prohibits only prior restraints of speech by the government. It does not insulate speakers from all criticism and consequences of their speech. The Times report provides no evidence of any prior restraint, merely a lot of upset people. And before Glenn reiterates his call for a civil rights investigation here, he should stop and consider what a liberal Justice Department would do with such an interpretation of the civil rights law in their hands.

No comments: