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.