A queer theory of free speech

Posted: Jan 15, 2004 12:00 AM

Last semester, while I was giving a lecture on the landmark First Amendment case of Gitlow v. New York  (1925), something very strange happened. In fact, one might say that it was rather queer.

Each semester, I use Gitlow to talk about the extent to which the First Amendment protects the advocacy of illegal conduct. I also use the case to explain how the First Amendment, once only binding on the federal government, was made binding on the States.

I usually begin my lecture on this topic by simulating a heated argument between a group of communists and a group of anti-communists.  I sometimes run out into the hall shouting statements like ?I?d like to kill myself a liberal commie? (doing my best imitation of a redneck) or ?our capitalist government must be overthrown, by murderous violence if necessary? (doing my best imitation of a sociologist). I then ask my students to tell me which statements are not protected by the First Amendment and why. Then, I typically outline the specific facts of Gitlow.

The students here at UNC-Wilmington have responded very positively to my often-unorthodox style.  In fact, students sometimes gather outside the classroom to listen to my lectures for fun while they are waiting on their next class.  That?s one of the reasons I sometimes carry my lectures into the hallway.

But last semester when I went into the hall, I noticed that a faculty member was standing just outside the door listening as I discussed Gitlow. After the class, I told her that she was welcomed to come into my class anytime she heard something interesting from the hallway. I told her she didn?t have to stand outside with her ear pressed to the door.  It was a sincere invitation. I was trying to be inclusive.

Unfortunately, my ?colleague? was unable to conceal her irritation with my unorthodox teaching style. In fact, she said that she intended to send me an e-mail to discuss the limitations on ?what we can and cannot say? inside the classroom. I kept waiting for the e-mail but it never came. I really wanted to hear a lecture on the First Amendment from this untenured sociology graduate student who teaches for us part-time.

About a week after the incident, a student informed me that the aforementioned faculty member was ?ragging on me? in the classroom. For those unfamiliar with this campus slang, it isn?t a good thing to be ?ragged on? in the classroom by another professor. And, of course, it isn?t very professional.

However, I have learned in my eleven years as a college professor to question student accounts of what transpires in the classroom. I usually assume that the student is lying or exaggerating until I hear the same story from several different students. Unfortunately, numerous other students enrolled in my ?colleague?s? class corroborated the student I just mentioned. The accounts were the same: Adams is a right-wing professor using his classroom to indoctrinate students by making derogatory remarks about ?commies.?

Every single teenager taking my class heard me conclude the Gitlow case by decrying his conviction for sedition. But, unfortunately, my ?colleague? missed the point entirely. Maybe she had her bad ear pressed against the door. Or maybe she just didn?t want to hear anything exculpatory.

But since she raised the point, I have a few things to say about using the classroom to indoctrinate students.  After all, it does happen. In fact, a couple of years ago as I was beginning a lecture, I noticed that the professor who had just finished giving a test in the same classroom had accidentally left a copy of his test behind. It was a true/false exam. It was loaded with questions like ?True or false. The American criminal justice system is racist? and ?True or false. The war on drugs is racist.? I thought the professor?s method was pretty direct. Just repeat my political views for points. Dissenters will repeat the course.

I considered mentioning that true/false exam to my eavesdropping ?colleague,? in order to see whether she would decry that kind of classroom indoctrination.  But then I discovered something queer. Or should I say strange? This semester she?s teaching a course called ?queer theory.? That?s right ladies and gentlemen; she?s taking a stand against classroom indoctrination and teaching a course in ?queer theory,? all in the same year.  What a bargain for the taxpayer!

When I first heard about the course, I wondered what a person learns in a course called ?queer theory.? I always thought that the ?theory? was that ?queerness? was genetically determined. I also thought that the term ?queer? was offensive, but this semester it isn?t. I sure hope they tell us the next time it becomes offensive. The rest of us will just follow their lead. That seems fair, doesn?t it?

Fortunately, I recently got to look at the course syllabus for ?queer theory.? It seems to be pretty rigorous. There are lots of required texts including ?What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality.? That book goes for $14.00, so I told my department chair that I would provide the ?queer theory? students with a real Bible, if they couldn?t afford all the required books.  The Bible is less expensive and it also tells the reader what the Bible really says about homosexuality.  But my colleagues tell me they support the separation of church and state, so I?d better come up with another plan.

The more I think about it, the more I like the idea of having a course in ?queer theory.? I?m sure that the course isn?t just about promoting gay politics. I?m sure that the professor and the students spend a lot of time talking about their feelings. And I?m sure that it?s a must for people who actually want to become ?queer theorists? after they graduate.

Let?s face it; we really do have a shortage of ?queer theorists.?  In fact, I?ve never met one who didn?t teach at a university.

Mike Adams (adams_mike@hotmail.com) is mighty proud to be a college professor.