October 19, 2008

The buttons we bear... or the crosses, or other things

In the last week I've been criticized by both Stanley Fish and Andy Rotherham, so I must be doing something halfway interesting. As Leo Casey notes, the legal problem in banning any and all campaign buttons from the classroom is the question of other forms of passive advertisement of individual commitments. How can one construe a school system's ability to ban campaign buttons without also prohibiting teachers from wearing a cross, a Star of David, or a head scarf? Fish's column this week has his answer, starting with the answer commenter Elizabeth Fuller gave:


"They signal a person's individual choice, not necessarily advocacy." That is [adds Fish], they don't ask you to do anything except recognize the self-identification of the person in front of you. A campaign button, on the other hand, is asking for your vote.
That argument presumes that one decoration is nothing more than a private declaration, while the other decoration is unhesitatingly a request for action. Doesn't that rather depend on the specifics: would a half-inch cross be acceptable but a cross that's five inches across be susceptible to banning because it's more of an advertisement? And if a 2-1/2" McCain button can be forbidden, what about the tiny half-inch Obama state lapel pins that are almost impossible to read? Those definitely strike me as a private declaration. In terms of the legal question, if the UFT wants to test this principle, they should find one teacher to wear a very large religious symbol and another teacher to wear an unreadable Obama lapel pin. Because UFT's case this month was making a facial challenge to the NYC DOE regulation, that sort of dilemma was not evident. But because I suspect the outcome of a real case would depend on the specifics of this type of contrast, I don't think you can make an abstract rule. (The federal district judge in the case denied a preliminary injunction about the buttons-in-the-classroom issue. because the standard for preliminary injunctions in First Amendment cases is whether the plaintiff is likely to win the case in the end.)

But even if a K-12 teacher or faculty member has the legal right to wear a campaign button, is it appropriate? Here we get to Fish's false dichotomy on professionalism: the behavior in question is either correct or forbidden. Nowhere is that fallacy more evident than in Fish's response to the "what if I'm asked explicitly?" hypothetical. Fish's ex cathedra answer rings false:

Should teachers avoid responding to students who ask them about their political preferences? If my students ask what candidate I favor, am I bound to refuse to answer? (Cary Nelson). First of all, if you're teaching a class and not leading a rally, there should be no opportunity for that question to arise. But if it does, yes, you should refuse to answer it, and perhaps throw in a little lesson about why it is irrelevant to any issue that might come up in an academic discussion.

Here, the faculty member is supposed to respond to an honest question with hectoring: stop asking such nonsense! Let me try to understand Fish's position: before answering each and every student question, I am supposed to parse it for tight connection to the course content, filtering out anything that doesn't clearly pertain. Faculty should be free to ignore obviously irrelevant questions, but this strikes me as a strained position designed to be consistent with Fish's prior position rather than be workable and sensible.

There is a further problem: if Fish is correct that anything is appropriate if only pinned by an academic lepidopterist*, then the student can turn any supposedly inappropriate question into an appropriate one by making it academic. So if the student is not really asking about the faculty member's persona politics (or family, or reading habits, etc.) but studying the response of faculty to nosy questions not directly related to a class, is it then appropriate? By Fish's rules, it must be. I can think of a few other ways for students to "academicize" the rudest and least relevant question. 

But that effort to Godelize Fish (or hoist Fish on his own petard) is a bit too esoteric. The fundamental point is that efforts to make clean distinctions between private actions and intruding statements is very difficult when you're interpreting what people wear. I've never worn a campaign button when on campus, but that restraint is because of my sense of what's appropriate, not because that judgment is something I can defend as an absolute. 

* Many years ago, Suzanne Bender gave me the metaphor of lepidoptery for all sorts of things, and it seems to be appropriate here.

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Posted in Academic freedom on October 19, 2008 11:44 PM |