Monday, July 22, 2013

Language Policy and Free Speech at Pima Community College

Today’s Inside Higher Ed reports on the case of Terri Bennett, a nursing student at Pima Community College who is suing the school for wrongful suspension and violation of her free speech rights. According to the article, Ms. Bennett objected to her fellow students’ speaking Spanish among themselves and in class, on the grounds that this interfered with her own learning.  She maintains that when she met with a college administrator, he called her a “bigot” and a “bitch,” and that she was then suspended.
The organization ProEnglish, a group that advocates English as an official language, is supporting Ms. Bennett.  On the other side, critics of the suit have characterized it as an attack on the education of Latino students.  A columnist for the Arizona Daily Star, quoted in the article, assails that organization, writing that "ProEnglish is speaking a language all right -- but it's not English. It's the language of The Code," she wrote. "The Code where 'our national identity' means white, not brown. Us, but not them. We all know who the 'them' are, wink wink."
Let me acknowledge that all I know about this case comes from this article and it is possible that there is more to it than appears here.  If Ms. Bennett, for example, repeatedly threw tantrums in the classroom whenever she heard Spanish or physically threatened a fellow student, instructor, or administrator, then the suspension would be justified. Nothing of the sort appears in the report, though.  On the basis of this reporting, I’d say they are two distinct issues in this particular case, and I’d draw a broader observation about debates over policy questions from it.
The first issue is that of Ms. Bennett’s objection to the use of Spanish.  An instructor can set language policy for a classroom according to the needs of the students. If the instructor decides that a multilingual or monolingual setting works best for a particular class, then the instructor can set the requirements accordingly. In order to do this, though, the instructor needs to listen carefully to every student’s concerns.  Neither Ms. Bennett nor any other student can insist that a particular language be spoken, but every each student’s preferences should be taken seriously. On the issue of whether fellow students have the right to speak Spanish (or any other language) among themselves, it seems clear to me that they do.  If this is inconvenient or uncomfortable for anyone, then, well, we all have to live with some inconvenience.
The second issue, though, is whether Ms. Bennett has the right to voice her views without insults or retaliation from the institution. On this point, assuming that the article accurately reports the situation, it is obvious to me that her lawsuit has merit.  No college administrator should ever call a student a “bitch,” and taking disciplinary action against someone for giving voice to an opinion is unconscionable.
The broader observation concerns how we respond to differing points of view, attacking motivations instead of considering arguments. The Arizona Daily Star’s characterization of ProEnglish is a more sophisticated version of the administrator’s alleged response to Ms. Bennett: scream “bigot” at anyone with ideas different from your own. I don’t support language regulation by legislators, but if you agree or disagree with me on this, you should base your response on reason, not on whether you think my opinion stems from my vicious or virtuous motivations and character.  Similarly, those who disagree with the public policy views of ProEnglish or other organizations need to base their disagreements on arguments, not accusations.


  1. Why Not To Study Spanish

  2. Anonymous,

    Thank you for the link to your interesting post. I'd disagree with it. Just take, for example, pt. #1:

    "1. Very little of value has been written in Spanish. On the typical occidental Great Books reading list, only one piece of literature, Don Quixote, makes the cut. Minor languages, like Icelandic or Gaelic, have produced more enduring works of literature."

    This is patently wrong. Among the classics of Western literature in Spanish, one can list the "Poema del Mio Cid" (author: Anonymous - perhaps you wrote it in a previous life), the works of Calderon de la Barca and Lope de Vega, Las Moradas of Santa Teresa de Avila, and the mystical poems of San Juan de la Cruz.

    Some of the greatest works of modern literature are in Spanish - including the philosophical fictions of Jorge Luis Borges, and the works of 11 Nobel Prize winners, including one of my own favorite authors, the Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa.

    I'd add, on another of the points, that the correlation between achievement test scores and Spanish study is spurious, a result of the fact the Spanish is the most commonly studied language in the US and that the less commonly studied a language is the more likely it is to draw students who are alreadhy high achievers.

    Of course, I support the study of Icelandic, Gaelic, etc.

  3. I found this interview with the administrator named in the lawsuit. I thought it might interest you. It's a huge he-said, she said.

    1. Anonymous,

      Thank you for adding this link, which gives a dimension absent from the Inside Higher Ed article. Maybe I should have included an even greater caveat than I put in paragraph 3. And, after saying that no administrator should insult a student, I probably should have said that no one else should assume wrongdoing by anyone on the basis of a single short article. So, good reminder.

  4. There's a connection between this incident and the 'in-group and out-group' implications that Jared Diamond seems to draw from his study of traditional societies. After physical phenotypes, language is probably the most salient marker of group identity. Whether it's intentional or not, speaking Language A around people who only speak Language B will inevitably rub speakers of Language B the wrong way. It's like the speakers of Language A are marking their territory, pissing in a circle around their camp. Outside of urban centers, no one in Europe likes American tourists because they jabber in English, and there's nothing more annoying than having to listen to a bunch of tourists jabbering in a foreign language. Now imagine if the tourists are moving in permanently . . .

    You're right that the "bigot" in question should probably learn to deal with minor inconveniences. But as someone who grew up in the L.A. area, I can tell you that dealing with this minor inconvenience every day can get mildly annoying. In more nationalistic times, we would have required the Mexicans to speak only English in public places precisely to avoid ticking off the white natives. Today, our elites don't care too much about the white natives, so the onus is on THEM to change, not the recent arrivals. It's quite possible in the Southwest to live a working class life without ever needing to learn English. So, yes, she should learn to deal with inconveniences. But that attitude is what's laying the groundwork for the eventual balkanization of large swaths of the American Southwest.