Public Speaking and Guns

by Adam Cody

Ph.D. Student
Dept. of Communication Arts & Sciences

The Art of the Speaker, the textbook used for the public speaking class here at Penn State, opens with a story about the founder of the Speech department. At his initial meeting with his employers, John Henry Frizzell is warned that his predecessor “so feared for his life that he’d carried a pistol at all times” (Johnstone et al., p. 2). In the end, Frizzell’s patience and endurance win him the respect of trouble-making students and established faculty alike.

Glib and cutesy as it is, this story bases the tone for the communication class on the failure of communication. The textbook invites each student to be part of a great Penn State tradition: resenting the university’s oral communication requirement. And the historical students seek to silence the instructor through harassment and intimidation, not petition or even disputation. Frizzell, for his part, doesn’t attempt to solve his problem by talking to the students harassing him; he stoically ignores them until the students respect his “guts” (Johnstone et al., p. 3).

The tension of this early speech class is personified in the character whose absence drives this story: the gun-toting pre-Frizzell instructor. Lecturing on ethos with a firearm at his hip, the anonymous teacher occupies the shared space between the First Amendment and the Second. Speaking freely and bearing arms might both be possible solutions to a certain problem, and each flourishes in the absence of the other.