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The majesty of the law

Student free speech cases like “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” strike me as rather silly. Schools always try to bring students to think and act in some ways rather than others. That’s why they exist. To do so they maintain controlled environments and clear hierarchies of authority. In particular, they prescribe the topics of discussion and what’s said about them. That, for example, is the point of recent litigation over mentioning Intelligent Design in schools. In such a setting, what’s the relevance of free speech rights of a kind appropriate to a town meeting? Even if such rights make sense in some academic settings, how can they be defined crudely and categorically enough to be enforceable by a panel of judges thousands of miles away?

The reason this kind of issue gets taken seriously, I think, is that people like to pretend that social life and thus schools can be based quite directly from top to bottom on equal freedom and the sort of clear rational truth modern natural science is supposed to give us. That’s not so, and the belief it’s so degrades institutions. By making ordered life in accordance with natural human tendencies impossible such an outlook ends by destroying actual freedom and rationality. I would have thought that academic freedom includes the right of schools to run their own affairs, for example. That freedom would include defining what counts as disruptive but today, it seems, doing so involves going to the Supreme Court, making weird arguments, and quite possibly losing.

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Similarly, people like to think that political life can be based on clear rational truth and a sort of moral neutrality. See John Kerry’s “you can’t legislate an article of faith” remark in the debates.

In reality, of course, all laws are a matter of “legislating an article of faith.” It’s simply a matter of whose gets legislated. As you’ve indicated before, nihilism isn’t really a possible worldview.