Mar 16, 2007

who controls meaning? testing the limits of free speech

This is a subject that might interest just my brother and me, but oh well. The facts:
After he unfurled his 14-foot "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" banner on a Juneau, Alaska, street one winter morning in 2002, Frederick got a 10-day school suspension. Five years later, he has a date Monday at the Supreme Court in what is shaping up as an important test of constitutional rights....

Frederick had previous run-ins with school administrators before the banner dispute. He said he first saw the slogan on a snowboard and thought it would make a good test of his rights because, though meaningless, it sounds provocative.

He chose to display the banner during a school-sanctioned event to watch the Olympic torch relay as it passed through Juneau on its way to the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City.

Morse saw the banner, confronted Frederick and suspended him. Frederick said she doubled the suspension to 10 days when he quoted Thomas Jefferson on free speech.

...Among the factors that could weigh in the decision, Frederick was standing on public property, not school grounds when he displayed the banner. The school said students were allowed to leave class to see the torch pass by, making the event school-sanctioned. Frederick, however, never made it to school that day before the event.
While academics might posit that meaning is a function of the text, or of the author's intent, or of a transaction between author and reader mediated via text, when it comes to this case, school administrators are essentially reader response theorists. What matters isn't what Frederick wrote, so much as what effect it would have on its readers, no matter how nonsensical the message. (If "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" promotes anything, it's Rastafarianism. Frederick's safe on other First Amendment grounds.)

So, who really controls meaning? Maybe we're all tacit postmodernists, and the answer is whoever's in charge.

2 comments:

Mason said...

So, who really controls meaning? Maybe we're all tacit postmodernists, and the answer is whoever's in charge.
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Meaning can only be controlled if we are too lazy or stupid to do anything about it. I say good for whoever it is fighting the "banner" fight.

Words have more than meaning they carry values and ideas do have consequences.

TeacherRefPoet said...

Hmmm. Isn't the test whether speech is disruptive to the edumacational process? This sign in this location at that moment, I believe, was not. My sympathies are with the administration, but my vote has to go for the kid.