Sunday, October 1, 2017

Demonstrating what free speech is all about

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 1 October 2017

I'm an unapologetic defender of free speech. However, free speech doesn't mean free pass. Colin Kaepernick is today's example of one using their platform to speak out on a controversial topic and to challenge the status quo and be harshly punished for it. He's unemployed in an industry that is desperate for his skills. He’d be better off had his offense been to beat up his girlfriend or to abuse his kid (those talented players are still employed and will play). Instead, Kaepernick broke no laws, indeed he acted within a constitutionally protected area, like those who wish to brandish a firearm. Except, those protections only protect you from the government, not your private sector employer.
And I agree with all of it. I think it's unfortunate that Kaepernick is not playing. But that's the system. Thankfully, our Supreme Court has upheld protections against flag burning when government has tried to criminalize it. I hope it never tries to criminalize a private actor from responding to public speech, whether it be with more speech or a firing.
President Trump is probably not breaking laws by encouraging NFL owners to fire those who decline the ritual of standing during the national anthem but it's a mistake similar to what President Obama did with criticizing the police in the Henry Louis Gates incident. I think Obama realized it and offered the beer summit for those officers to discuss it along with Gates. It was six months into his term and it was an admission of a mistake. Perhaps President Trump will do something similar.
Free speech is threatened. Not by bullies like Trump or corporate entities who fire folks who say controversial things that employers disagree with (Google, NFL, various media outlets) but from within. A Brookings study surveyed college students and their views and understandings of free speech. The findings are "concerning." I find myself more in agreement with conservative than liberal students. I'd urge my colleagues to read the results of this paper and think hard about what they convey to their students. Silencing racists, misogynists and heterosexists will not win the rhetorical, symbolic or political debates. I find too many students able to recite but not reason.
Disagreement is not the same as offending. But that distinction seems to be dissolving and it has a corrosive effect on speech. Disagreeing is how we strengthen our arguments. We must read and understand what the "other side" says in order to craft our arguments. Not shout it down or pass administrative rules to silence it. Our public universities should be raucous and not for the faint of heart. It should be about challenging everyone. Private colleges are the enclaves of "like me," not public universities because "we" are for all including atheists and fundamentalists, racists and anti-racists, the misogynist and feminist, capitalist and socialist. If our students think disagreeing is offending then we have a silent campus. And that should outrage the faculty.
Richard Spencer, a prominent leader and spokesperson for the alt-right wanted to speak at my alma mater, the University of Florida. As a student there in the '70s it was a cauldron of free speech and an important part of my education. UF turned Spencer down. I wrote as an alum that UF should welcome his controversy as an opportunity. UF changed course in face of a threatened lawsuit but has a lot of lawyerly language to no doubt create "outs" for them as they negotiate with Spencer.
Another alma mater, Virginia Tech, is in the news for what the basketball coach did with his team who failed to follow the required robotic response to the national anthem. When did the Star Spangled Banner become only about vets and the serving military? In any case they serve so people can stand or sit during the national anthem. But Coach Williams used more speech to try to convince his players to do what he wanted. That’s better than a threat like President Trump is urging. President Trump is no defender of free speech.
I'm sure Richard Spencer has a search engine that identifies every time his name appears on the internet. I disagree with all that you say and stand for. But I'll defend your right to say it to the end. ISU has a banquet facility for hire, rent it and speak here. You'll find many in the community sympathetic to your beliefs. And I think ISU needs to demonstrate what free speech is all about.
Thomas L. Steiger is a professor of sociology and director of the Center for Student Research and Creativity at Indiana State University. Email

Sunday, September 3, 2017

White supremacy a scourge to take seriously

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 3 September 2017

The events two weeks ago in Charlottesville and the glee with which openly white supremacist leaders spoke of President Trump’s response really bothered me. It took me about a week to figure out why. I traced it back to ninth grade.
As I entered the seventh grade, Florida schools desegregated under federal court orders. Needless to say, the officials in charge didn’t do a very good job; it seemed they did it in such a way to foment a stiff and at times violent reaction to it. Then Governor Claude Kirk was an ardent foe of “busing.” That was 1970. For me, my junior high (seventh, eighth and ninth grade) was desegregated and my parents sent me to a “white flight” Christian school. That should tell you about my parents’ racial views.
The next year I returned to public school because my parents were OK with how school officials were achieving “busing” (basically that I would not be bused to a “black” school).
My future high school was just a few blocks away from the junior high and it was the site of considerable racial violence. It even made the CBS Evening News and often the trouble “walked down the street” to my school and we had our share of racial violence as well. One morning, in November, we arrived on school grounds and someone (I doubt anyone from the school, although a parent might have been a culprit) had painted a racial epithet on the basketball court. We did not have an inside gym, so this racial epithet in six foot letters in the very center of the school, was so inflammatory (I doubt the Trib-Star would print it) it created immediate tension and strong reactions.
I was on the yearbook staff and we met an hour before classes started. That day, I was in Mrs. Smith’s room doing yearbook stuff when I saw another yearbook staff person, my friend Carl, walking in from the bike racks and a black kid (African-American was not yet used) ran up behind him and hit him in the back of the head with a baseball bat. I saw him go down and I ran out of the room and around an exterior stairway to see if he was okay. He was. He said he sensed something behind him and scrunched up his shoulders and the bat hit him there. His books were scattered and I told him to get inside and I grabbed his books. Then I was surrounded by eight black guys, most of whom I recognized and a few others who were older, high school boys. One had a bat, another a chain. They pushed me back and forth like a scene from West Side Story, the bat was swung at my head but I ducked and the chain was swung at me and caught me on the side. I broke through the group and ran away to the safety of Mrs. Smith’s room.
The “gang” then walked down the length of the building to an interior stairway and assaulted another kid. He was not as fortunate as I was. He was lashed several times in the face with the chain and his eyes were permanently damaged. This attack created, not surprisingly, an uproar and the eight boys were caught. The issue for the police was who swung the chain. The captured boys named the chain swinger, a kid named Johnnie. Johnnie was known by many other black kids as an “oreo.” In fact, Johnnie, Mike, and I were friends and played gym towel basketball everyday instead of eating lunch.
Johnnie was charged and had a juvenile court hearing. His attorneys (no kidding, I think they were just law students from the local law school) heard that I was assaulted just minutes before Rusty was. They came to see me. No police or prosecutor ever spoke to me. They asked if Johnnie was in the group that assaulted me. “No.” Do you know who swung the chain at you? “Yes.” So, during the trial, I was brought in to “impeach” a couple of the witnesses.
That I was going to testify in open court in defense of a “n****r” became an issue for me and my parents. To my parents’ credit, despite they themselves being white supremacists, told me to just tell the truth. I knew then it was hard on them, but I hope the “always tell the truth” that they drummed into me, somehow gave them some satisfaction.
The day I testified was ugly. There were protesters but after the trial was dismissed for that day, the parents of the boys I had contradicted got in my face, they screamed at me, they threatened me. Somehow I understood that, I had just called their boys liars. I was scared but that compared nothing to the response from the white supremacy crowd. They didn’t care about the truth. They only wanted to see a black kid be punished. It didn’t matter who it was, as “they” are all the same. For me, this was the crack that I needed to see my own way out of that world.
Our house was vandalized with “race traitor” sprayed on our driveway. My life was threatened multiple times by angry white folks, most of whom I knew and knew through my dad were KKK. One day, my folks were out, I was to cut the grass and was getting the mower ready to do that when a car pulled up, full of angry white guys, none of whom I recognized, they told me that they were going to “f**k me up” and two got out of their car, one with a bat and the other with a piece of wood with a nail protruding from it. I was frightened and I reached for a huge wrench my dad had and turned and just waited for these two guys. I said nothing because I was petrified and felt like I was going to puke. Then they stopped, turned around, got back in the car and drove off. I don’t know why, they were at the right place and had called me by name.
I’ve faced racial violence and I’ve faced angry white supremacists. The white supremacists scared me (and still do) far more than any angry BLM protest or Louis Farrakhan fulminations. I’ve received death threats twice in my life. Then and later after first moving to Terre Haute and encountering the Klan at the Covered Bridge Festival and writing a letter to the editor of the Trib-Star about it. After it was published I received death threats over the phone. My earlier experience though taught me the real danger isn’t the threat, but when out of the blue a car full of angry white supremacists shows up, unexpectedly.
For those white folks who have liberal views on race, immigration, diversity, and so forth, do not take this rise in white supremacy activity lightly. You are all “race traitors” and a race traitor to them is the worst thing one can be.
Thomas L. Steiger is a professor of sociology and director of the Center for Student Research and Creativity at Indiana State University. Email

Sunday, July 9, 2017

A strange attitude concerning press censorship

I’ve been storing a truckload of my deceased parents’ stuff. This summer, after several moves and even more years, I decided to go through it and make the hard decisions about getting rid of (at least) some of it.
In one box was a clear plastic bag with newspapers in it. Tribune-Stars, haphazardly folded, but with a similarity; they were the D section of the Sunday Trib containing my essays. My mother was saving my essays. I’d discovered a treasure trove. Until 2007ish I didn’t save my Tribune-Star essays, so these have been termed “Mom’s archive” and I’ve been digitizing them and (re)publishing them on my personal blog.
Some of these previous essays beg for updating and that is what I am doing today, updating an essay published on Feb. 6, 2005, titled “A reaction laced with hypocrisy.” The essay was about a survey published by the Knight Foundation on the attitudes of high school students toward the First Amendment. Knight has recently published another survey and given the tensions surrounding the press, its role, journalists’ rights and “fake news” it seemed ready-made for an update.
Some of the high points of the survey findings from 2006 were that 70 percent of the surveyed high school students believed that newspapers should seek government approval before running their stories and that only a bit more than a third disagreed that the First Amendment went too far in the rights it guarantees. Those students would be today in their middle to late twenties and voting.
I wrote that this finding was a reason for concern. The Knight Foundation cited a lack of resources and extra-curricular opportunities to learn about the First Amendment such as school newspapers. I pointed to broader changes in schools and likened them to prisons as the lives of students were becoming increasingly regulated leaving less room for student agency.
The hypocrisy referred to in the title had to do with this finding: Fifty-eight percent of students agreed that high schools should be allowed to report on controversial issues in their student newspapers without approval of school authorities. But only 39 percent of teachers did and less than a quarter of principals did.
In 2016, 56 percent of students disagreed that the First Amendment went too far in the rights it guarantees. For the teachers, it was 75 percent who disagreed with that statement. As to newspapers seeking government approval before running their stories, 61 percent of students and 73 percent of teachers agreed. Seems contradictory.
Ninety-one percent of students agreed that “people should be able to express unpopular opinions.” And those who more frequently consume news and actively engage with news through social media demonstrate stronger support for First Amendment freedoms. Unfortunately, the report does not include data on how many students regularly consumed and engaged with news sources. Based on my experience with my students, I would guess the proportion to be small. Of those who said they engaged “often” the smartphone was their overwhelming source for their news.
The study asked students and teachers about online news providers’ right to publish stories without government censorship. Seventy-three percent of teachers and 60 percent of students were supportive of that right, echoing somewhat the proportions responding to whether newspapers should seek government approval before running their stories. To me, this is concerning, especially now that the President of the United States is attempting to discredit the press.
Is there a difference in levels of trust for different media between students and their teachers? The highest trust for both students (83 percent) and teachers (91 percent) is news printed in newspapers. The trust placed on the information in newspapers was similar to information from friends and family. The lowest trust for both students (49 percent) and teachers (34 percent) was in social media. This was also the biggest gap between students and teachers.
The hypocrisy remains, however. Sixty-three percent of students believe high school students should be able to report on controversial issues in their student newspapers without the approval of school authorities. Only 37 percent of teachers agreed. Those numbers haven’t changed much since 2006.
In an age of high levels of distrust in government, to suggest censorship is an answer to an overreach of press freedom or for it to monitor “offensive” content seems strange. Three-quarters of teachers and almost 60 percent of students unquestioningly support the First Amendment. Why not look to the “market” as the answer? Don’t like a source, don’t read it.
Thomas L. Steiger is a professor of sociology and director of the Center for Student Research and Creativity at Indiana State University. Email:

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Letting the authoritarians lead the way

Previously published in the 2 July 2017 Terre Haute Tribune Star.

Today, the senior demon Authoritarian is meeting with President Trump. 

“Welcome, welcome, my friend, President Trump.  Congratulations on your astounding victory last November and most recently achieving your travel ban.”

“Thank you, Authoritarian.  America has lost its way.  I will turn her back on the right road and make her great again.”

Authoritarian chuckles and waves to his nephew, Pootie Poot. “Join us Pootie.”

“Good evening Uncle and it’s very good to see you again Donald.  It has been too long.”

“Pootie Poot? “

“Just a term of endearment an uncle has for his nephew, Donald.  May I also congratulate you on your recent triumph over CNN.  The press is a great threat to your total authority.  I understand your frustration.  If I may, continue to wage war against the press.  The American people don’t care and it helps to solidify devotion among your supporters.”

“The press should not be questioning, they should be reporting.  Pootie Poot’s  press does that and those who do not are dealt with swiftly.  It is not for the press to hold you accountable.  In fact, you don’t have to speak to them at all.”

“Also, if I may, do not exalt in your victory at the Supreme Court.  What if it had ruled against you?  The courts are a potential block to your total authority.  You must continue to put them in their place.  Congress is also a threat to your total authority.  I see that the new Senator Young, from Indiana, is suggesting that Congress should assert itself over your ability to be strong with your enemies.  I would point out that his party cannot even repeal healthcare, that is, Obamacare holding all three branches of government and 33 states.  Tell him to shut up, that he is undermining the safety and security of the nation.”

“I like how you think, Authoritarian, maybe I need you on my team.” 

“President Donald, I appreciate that, but I think you are doing fine.  You made those weak democratic leaders in Europe look like lost sheep  last month.  You broke with the herd mentality on almost everything they hold dear.  And I think you could be a leader among the strongmen of the Arab world.”  To himself, Authoritarian thinks “I had great hopes for Arafat and his Pan-Arab approach.  That outpost of democracy in the middle east must be extinguished.”

“Uncle, the United States seems to be in turmoil over many things.  Americans seem riled about the repeal of Obamacare, the travel ban, education, the military, everything.  I would never put up with so much chaos, why do you seem unconcerned about it with Trump’s United States?”

“Pootie Poot, are you suffering from dementia? Do you not recall glasnost and perestroika?  Communism forced authority upon the people.  It’s better when they want it.  Glasnost and Perestroika were necessary times of chaos to show the people they wanted, needed, strong authority.  What was your last vote total?”

“I was voted in by over 63% of the voters.”

“Haha, that is even more than our new friend Donald got.  Don’t react President Trump, you will win easily the next election.  You have much power in the American Presidency, do not fear using it.  Silence the press, use the same brilliant strategy you used against the other Republicans who wanted to be President.  It should not be hard to assert your will over the shepherd McConnell.  In fact, sow more chaos and just blame Congress for it.  You can create much turmoil in the health care markets, you have a debt limit fight coming, refuse to borrow over the limit force the spending cuts that are needed.  Bend Congress to your will.”

“Refuse to pay the UN, talk of leaving that worthless organization.”  Ask one of the EU leaders to host it, Let Germany have it.  I applaud your change in policy toward Cuba.  Lifting the sanctions against Cuba only would give rise to those who wish democracy in Cuba, tightening the sanctions creates the conditions for strong Authority, to protect Cuba’s sovereignty.  This is a wonderful gift to the hardliners in Cuba and in Miami. Bravo.”

“Authoritarian, do you play golf?”  I’d love to host you at one of my exclusive clubs.” 

“Are you a betting man, Zaika?”

“What are we playing for?”

Pootie Poot interrupts, “what is this?  I think this is a listening device.  Could be NSA. “  Sound of the device landing on the floor……signal lost.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Cheers to celebrating the things we value. 8 May 2005

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, May 8 2005

Teaching Bible as literature? Be careful what you pray for, 18 March 2007

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune-Star, March 18, 2007

Bald eagle an inspiring sight, even on a dirty river, 30 June 2006

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 30 June 2006
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