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Rhyme and Reason of Free Speech

October 31, 2002|Norah Vincent | Norah Vincent is a writer and a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a think tank set up after Sept. 11 to study terrorism. Web site: www.norahvincent.com.

Dethroning a poet laureate is a sticky proposition. For starters, it's embarrassing, not to mention possibly fraught with free-speech complications. It's not something you do lightly, which is why it's curious that both California and New Jersey have found themselves in the unenviable position recently of impugning their chief bards.

After having been tapped for the eminent literary post by Gov. Gray Davis, California's poet laureate, Quincy T. Troupe, abruptly resigned earlier this month when it was revealed that he had embellished his resume.

Troupe had claimed to have earned an undergraduate degree from Grambling University, but it turns out that he merely attended classes there and did not graduate.

Because Troupe had the good grace, or perhaps shrewd instinct, to step down when this documented mendacity came to light, California has gotten off relatively easy on this one. Free speech didn't come into it. If Troupe had been recalcitrant, the state would have been as justified in firing him as any other employer who had found that an employee lied on his resume. UC San Diego, where the poet teaches, has an even stronger case for terminating him. After all, Troupe can hardly be qualified to teach undergraduates when he has not himself completed an undergraduate degree.

Clearly, with both employers, Troupe committed a terminal offense; on the state level, he rightly paid the price for it.

But what about New Jersey's poet laureate, Amiri Baraka? He too is in trouble, but what to do about it has become a matter of heated debate.

The controversy began last month when Baraka read aloud a poem titled "Somebody Blew Up America," which contains the following verse: "Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed / Who told 4,000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers / To stay home that day / Why did Sharon stay away?"

An obvious reference to the widely discredited canard that the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had advance knowledge of and was probably responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks, Baraka's verse set off an understandable firestorm of protest, including accusations of anti-Semitism from the Anti-Defamation League.

New Jersey Gov. James E. McGreevey asked for Baraka's resignation, but Baraka refused and has vowed to fight any effort to remove him. Resolving this case may be a protracted and ugly process, which, as any free-speech maven worth his salt will tell you, is as it should be.

McGreevey was right to upbraid Baraka for disseminating the most loathsome bit of anti-Semitic conspiracy theory to surface since the fraudulent "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion." But he was wrong to try to strip Baraka of his post.

Poets, unlike journalists and historians and a whole host of other professionals, are not bound in their work by facts. By rights, poems, unlike newspaper and magazine articles, advertisements and nonfiction books, can take liberties with the truth. They are not thereby rendered illegitimate as works of art, and their creators are not thereby rendered unemployable.

By lying on his resume, Troupe violated a code of ethics, and the state of California would have been right to dismiss him for doing so.

By lying in verse, however, Baraka violated nothing except the rules of common decency, which have no rightful bearing on artistic expression.

New Jerseyans are entitled to pillory Baraka for his hateful views, but defenestrating a poet laureate over an offending verse would set a dangerous and illiberal precedent for the policing of public art.

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