Of Holt and hypocrisy

Posted: Dec 13, 2004 12:00 AM

Wythe Holt, a law professor at the University of Alabama is a self-proclaimed defender of the First Amendment. In 2002, Professor Holt came to the aid of a young black female, who had been censored by officials at her high school in Huntsville, Alabama.

The student, Kohl Fallin, had written a poem comparing blacks and whites with the following line: ?We are worth more than your pale white skin. Not a penny less but a thousand billion pennies more.? She also described the way she felt when racist remarks were directed towards her by whites: ?When I hear these words come out of your mouth it makes me want to slap the white off you and leave you with some sense.?

After using this highly charged language, Fallin ended her poem on a more positive note: ?If you spent your time focusing on ways we are alike instead of ways you think we are inferior to you, then you would see what we are really about, and you may then define us with words because you will know just how precious and priceless we really are.?

After officials at Huntsville?s Lee High School banned the poem from publication in a student magazine, Professor Holt wrote a letter to the Board of Education. In his letter, he suggested that the poem should be published and that the school should apologize to Fallin for stifling her right to express her frustrations with perceived white racism.

And Professor Holt was right.

I thought that the poem contained good and bad speech and, thus, served as a reminder of the two principal dangers of censorship. The first danger is the suppression of good speech. The second is the suppression of an appreciation for good speech, fostered by exposure to bad speech.  But judging between good and bad speech is the role of individuals, not governments.

To the best of my knowledge, the Kohl Fallin case represents the last time that Professor Holt has been right on a First Amendment issue. Since then, he has not only been wrong, but dangerously irresponsible in his approach to free expression.

In 2o02, when a group of professors at the University of Alabama opposed a mandatory sensitivity training program, Professor Holt was incensed. After dissenting faculty contacted state representatives to oppose funding for the Orwellian initiative, Holt decided to launch an investigation of them. Launching an investigation of citizens for ?petition(ing) the Government for a redress of grievances? would be foolish for anyone to consider. The idea that such an investigation would be launched by a law professor is more than foolish. It is cause for serious concern.

In 2003, Professor Holt declined to oppose a campus ban on flags because he viewed the Confederate flag to be inflammatory and offensive. This was despite the fact that the ban applied to other flags such as the American flag. It took an uprising among students to teach the administration that the ban was unconstitutional. They won a victory for the First Amendment without the support of Wythe Holt, the self-proclaimed defender of free speech.

If passive aggression towards free expression were Professor Holt?s only error, this column would not be necessary. But now, Holt is actively involved in an attempt to systematically ban ideas he finds offensive at Alabama?s flagship institution. The attempt takes the form of a new ban on ?any behavior which demeans or reduces an individual based on group affiliation or personal characteristics, or which promotes hate or discrimination.?

Professor Holt?s new campus speech code is so overly broad and vague that it stands no chance of passing constitutional muster if fully implemented and challenged. I am one of many who will not rest until a war against this initiative is fully engaged in both the court of public opinion and in a court of law. When clearly unnecessary and illegal speech codes are drafted for purposes of intimidation, justice demands no less.

Wythe Holt, like so many others in academia, fails understand that free expression is process, not a result.  Public discourse cannot be rigged to guarantee certain results for certain groups contingent upon their present popularity with the powers that be.

Our constitution demands that the government remain uninvolved in the marketplace of ideas whenever possible. Whenever government involvement in matters of free expression is necessary, it must take the form of facilitation that is viewpoint neutral. It cannot take the form of manipulation that is ideologically motivated.

Put simply, our commitment to the First Amendment is best shown when we reluctantly support those who contradict our views, not when we enthusiastically support those who share them.

It appeared for a time that Wythe Holt understood that principal. But now the public knows better. Because of his actions, precious freedoms are in danger at Alabama?s flagship institution. Come to think of it, this isn?t the first time.

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