Teaching in a Time of Hate and Violence

IMG_3810The First and Second Amendments of the United States Constitution, along with their current legal interpretations and applications as they relate to our public schools and universities, weigh heavily on my mind—especially this week in the wake of the latest in the string of school mass murder shootings and in the wake of the latest in the string of “public square” free speech debates at the University of Washington where I teach.

The Second Amendment right of citizens to bear arms should not include the right of angry, violence-loving individuals to own and use assault weapons on our school children as has happened in rapid-fire, soul-numbing fashion in our country. It should not include the right to bring—and use—firearms to the public squares of our universities (as happened at my own university last January during a “free-hate speech” protest/counter-protest on Red Square, pictured above with our grand Suzzallo Library in the background. See the Seattle Times article “Couple charged with assault in shooting, melee during UW speech by Milo Yiannopulos” by Mike Carter and Steve Miletich, April 24, 2017) Of course, we need better mental health services throughout our country, but this is not about mental health, it is about saner gun safety regulations.

Gun-related violence in our country is a major public health issue. Although hampered by the successful lobbying efforts of the National Rifle Association to curtail public health research since 1996 (see: The Atlantic article “Why Can’t the U.S. Treat Guns as a Public-Health Problem? by Sarah Zhang, April 15, 2018), we do have sufficient evidence to start making positive changes. Nicholas Kristof’s NYT article with amazing graphics, “How to Reduce Shootings” (February 15, 2018) illustrates some of these options. I do take issue though with his point that gun-violence deaths at our schools pale represent just a small fraction of the total number of gun-related fatalities (including suicides) in our country. That does not take into account the detrimental health effects of the daily very real threat of school shootings on the millions of students, teachers, coaches, and administrative staff members at all of our schools, colleges, and universities.

And as to the First Amendment right to free speech that includes hate speech—because one person’s hate is another person’s love or something along those lines? Having grown up during the Civil Rights era and personally benefiting from the rights to both free speech and academic freedom, I do understand (even if I don’t like) the fact that a known White Nationalist group (sponsored by the UW student club College Republicans) was allowed to speak at the University of Washington campus last Saturday. What I do not understand and do not agree with was the fact that other legitimate UW scheduled events that day—as well as the two UW libraries on Red Square—were forced to close/be cancelled because of the credible threat of violence incited by this event. A white nationalist hate group, in effect, closed the major libraries of our public university for an entire day, and in the name of free speech? Our library’s mission statement includes: “advances intellectual discovery and enriches the quality of life by connecting people with knowledge.” Our libraries are core elements of the teaching, research, and service mission of our public university. Their work cannot be allowed to be curtailed by hate and violence.

#enough  of all of that.

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