Saturday, February 19, 2005

The Nassau Weekly

The Daily Princetonian reports that the Nassau Weekly, an irreverant student publication that tries to get a good laugh every now and then, recently apologized for running a list of the top ten Holocaust movies we would like to see but have never seen. An excerpt from the article describing the spoof:
The list, which was printed in the magazine's Feb. 10 issue under the larger headline "And Now For Something Completely Offensive," was written by the magazine's coeditor-in-chief Jacob Savage '06 and features editor Rob Buerki '06.

In the list, Savage and Buerki — who are both Jewish — altered mainstream movie titles like "Dude, Where's My Car," "A Weekend at Bernie's" and "Meet the Fockers" to "Dude, Where's My Family," "A Week at Bergen-Belsen" and "Exterminate the Fockers."

The administration called the list "undeniably offensive" and is considering disciplinary measures. I agree with the administration on the first and not the second. While the Nassau Weekly editors explained that they showed it to other Jewish students (presumably friends of theirs) who said they were not offended by it, they misjudged the political sensitivity of this issue. Although the title of the piece was "And now for something completely offensive", the authors do not seem to have thought that the piece would be truly offensive, only offensive in a manner designed to elicit a few laughs at the sheer inappropriateness of the piece. At least that is what I knew the publication to be when I was at Princeton; they used to place copies in every toilet stall and always delighted in being a thorn in the Daily Princetonian's side. Nonetheless, that the editors would so badly misjudge the public reaction is surprising in light of the controversy surrounding Prince Harry last month when he wore a Nazi uniform to a costume party. Asking friends to take a look is also not the best way to measure potential reaction because your friends know who you are and that you did not have bad intentions and will take that into account when offering their take on your work.

However, disciplinary measures goes too far. The almost uniformly negative reaction to this piece seems to have done its job. The authors learned that they overstepped the boundaries of what the public finds acceptable and apologized. This is the marketplace of ideas at its best. Disciplinary measures are therefore unnecessary. Although sanctions might encourage student editors to think twice before publishing anything, that seems to be the practice generally now; it's not clear to me that the editors would have done any differently because they were clearly concerned about the possible reaction when they showed the piece to their friends and they appear to have simply made a misjudgment in that regard. In this way, the sanctions would largely punish those who did not anticipate that they would be flouting any University rules. Strict liability is simply inappropriate in the speech context not only because it would chill the exchange of ideas that the marketplace of ideas thrives on, but also because, as just discussed, there is already the possibility of "market correction." In this context, the authors probably feel terrible about what they have done, and that they will think twice before publishing anything even remotely similar in the future.

6 Comments:

Blogger Ha ha hit him again said...

And what of Brandeburg v. Ohio? And Qaeda bin Osama? I wonder if the FBI will start investigating this blog now!

2/19/2005 09:53:00 PM  
Blogger sling said...

I agree with you on this issue.

why do you love quoting your blog.. you can constantly write entries quoting previous entries in perpetuity..

2/21/2005 05:04:00 AM  
Blogger The Critics said...

I disagree. These editors likely only feel terrible when confronted with the consequences of their situation. People who publish newspapers are often above the status quo. They have achieved their position above others and have gained a bank of knowledge and should absolutely know where the line is, or at least what exists far below the line. This situation exists far below the line. There is no afterthought here because it is implicitly clear that something like this would be condemned by public policy.

Furthermore, newspaper editing goes through several steps. Blogging does not. So something that is posted on a blog could be chatised by readers and subsequently removed by the blogger, whereas something in a newspaper will never be taken back, except with a retraction in a later issue. The editors had time to contemplate their article, and fully deserve any appropriate sanctions.

With regard to sanctions, if sanctions did not exist in a free-speech context, then people would say things without regard to sensitivity issues. Freedom of speech is not absolute. If you willfully and purposely post something in the public forum that doesnt belong there, then you deserve a penalty for your actions. Public dispute is not enough. If there is no check on speech, then things like this will continue to occur. Sanctions make people think twice about doing something.

2/21/2005 01:38:00 PM  
Blogger putonyourspecs said...

A few questions in response to JTerpsLaw's comment:

1. Who determines what belongs in the public form? How?

2. Anything said will manage to offend someone somewhere. How many people must be offended? Who must these people be for there to be sanctions?

3. Why is public rebuke not enough of a check in this particular instance?

I merely post these questions because these are my main problems with JTerpsLaw's position. How I come out on them myself I think is obvious from my post.

2/21/2005 04:32:00 PM  
Blogger Arvin Hill said...

The penalty or sanction for offensive public speech should be social - not institutional.

Why is it okay for Woody Allen to parody Jews but not okay for anyone else to do so? Why is it okay for Dave Chapelle to parody Blacks, Asians, white people and everyone else -- yet you or I catch hell for it?

Everyone needs to lighten the fuck up and develop thicker skins.

I'm a leftwinger from waaaaaay back, and count me as one who opposes political correctness in all its forms.

While I condemn those of my own political persuasion who are prone to imposing their free speech ideals on others, rightwingers are dead wrong when they claim PC is a liberal invention. There have always been people willing to put severe restraints on speech - and they hail from the entire spectrum of politics.

Leftwing PCness is always documented as such and appropriately railed against; yet somehow the righties, more often than not, escape being being tarred with the same brush they apply to liberal behavior.

One of the most common cliches by those on the right now is this: "Of course, you have free speech and can say what you like. But there are consequences for exercising it." And, by consequences, they mean it should be okay for me to get fired or have my house burned to the ground because I say something they don't agree with. That's hardly "free" speech.

Freedom includes the freedom to take offense at the speech of others - and the freedom to condemn what is said. But to bring direct harm to a person as a result of that speech is morally repugnant.

2/22/2005 07:03:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sure it is in bad taste, but that is a large part of comedy. Regardless, "Dude, Where is My Family?" is pretty funny.

2/24/2005 06:28:00 PM  

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