May 30, 2006

Supreme Freedom of Speech

Internal conflict is not common at Language Log Plaza. But you would think that when one of our writers disagrees with one of the high mucky-muck elders, there could be all hell to pay. And once in a while conflicts actually happen here, right in our hallowed halls. You may recall that last month there were lots of Language Log posts about the Harvard plagiarist, Kaavya Viswanathan. Geoff Pullum thought the young student/budding chick lit author should be hogtied for copying passages word for word from an earlier novel (see here). Bill Poser wasn't as sure about this and came to her defense (well, sort of anyway) (see here). The rest of us hunkered down at our desks, waiting for a donnybrook to take place. It didn't. Life went on as if no conflict had ever happened (we're special that way).

Why are we so calm and dignified at Language Log? Because we Loggers are civilized people who don't mind disagreeing with each other. No sweat. On the the next exciting topic! But it's a good thing that Language Log isn't part of the government. The Supreme Court just nailed a public employee who claimed that he had been denied promotion for challenging the legitimacy of a search warrant (New York Times). A Los Angeles deputy prosecutor complained to his boss that he had found some serious misrepresentations in an affidavit that his office used to get it. Apparently not a  good move, since the deputy prosecutor shortly afterward was reassigned and denied promotion, for which he promply filed a grievance. He lost in federal court but later prevailed in the Court of Appeals, which upheld his claim that his freedom of speech rights had been violated. Off the case then went to the Supreme Court, which ruled against the deputy prosecutor, claiming that when people enter government service, they have to accept certain limitations on their freedom. The deputy prosecutor was said to be acting in his official capacity, not as a private citizen, when he made his internal complaint about the inadequate search warrant. The Supreme Court's 5 to 4 decision split along the lines of ... well, you probably know how it split without my mentioning it. Many feel that, among other things, this decision could cast an uncomfortable pall on whistle blowers in the future.

So the Supremes now tell us that our right to freedom of speech has some pretty strong limits, especially if you happen to be a government employee. Fortunately, those of us at Language Log work in the private sector where we can disagree with each other all we want, even though we seldom do. We have freedom of speech. That's what democracy is all about -- except for government employees. But now that I think about it, aren't Justices Souter, Ginsberg, Stevens and Bryer also public employees, disagreeing with the majority? I wonder if ... naah.

Posted by Roger Shuy at May 30, 2006 11:49 PM