Daily Archives: November 27, 2005

Academic freedom, extremism, and whose ox is being gored

There’s a to-do at Warren Community College in New Jersey over an email sent to a student by adjunct instructor (now ex-adjunct instructor) John Daly to a student earlier this month.

Rebecca Beach, a Warren student and the head of the campus chapter of Young America’s Foundation, sent out an email to the faculty about an event she was helping organize at which a veteran of the war in Iraq was to speak, favorably, about the war. In response, Daly fired off a long rant that referred to YAF literature as “fascist propaganda,” denounced the assertion on one of their posters that “Communism killed 100,000,000” (which, Daly asserted, “is not only untrue, but ignores the fact that CAPITALISM has killed many more”) and concluded thusly:

I will continue to expose your right-wing, anti-people politics until groups like your won’t dare show their face on a college campus. Real freedom will come when soldiers in Iraq turn their guns on their superiors and fight for just causes and for people’s needs–such freedom fighters can be counted throughout American history and they certainly will be counted again.

After the YAF publicized the email, a controversy eruped. Warren Community College president William Austin said that he found Daly’s statements “personally repugnant” but would defend his First Amendment rights to express his views. Daly noted that Beach was not his student, and that he had sent the email from his personal account to her personal account (rather than a college one). Nonetheless, the Board of Trustees scheduled an emergency meeting to discuss Daly’s fate, and he ended up resigning before he could be fired.

I agree with Eugene Volokh that the retaliation is troubling:

Daly sounds like a jerk, but it seems to me that his speech is protected by principles of academic freedom, and quite possibly by the First Amendment. … He’s entitled to express his views (however reprehensible) about the propriety of soldiers killing their superiors, and to condemn (even if intemperately) people who put on programs that he thinks express immoral views. Trying to intimidate students with threats of low grades would of course be improper, but simply threatening to urge others to stay away from the talk is permissible — again, in my view quite wrong for a talk such as this one, but permissible.

At the same time, it’s interesting to note that Daly’s email to Beach does not simply criticize or intemperately condemn her views; he promises to do everything he can to silence groups such as hers and make sure that their views are not heard on the campus. So there’s a bit of hypocrisy in his claiming the protection of free speech for his own views.

Meanwhile, there is a lively discussion of the Daly contretemps in the comments at Inside Higher Ed. Daly’s opponents argue that his comment about U.S. soldiers turning their guns on their superiors amounts to “treason” (hardly, since he was not directing any propaganda at actual soldiers) while his supporters lament that he was driven from his job for “private speech” and for exposing students to views “outside the mainstream.”

As I said, I do think this case has disturbing implications for academic freedom, and it raises troubling questions about the rights (or lack thereof) of adjunct faculty.

But.

As a commenter at Inside Higher Ed noted, suppose Daly — or some far-right intellectual twin of his — had written, “Abortion will end when someone turns their guns on the abortionists.” Suppose, too, that he had written this to a student who had emailed him about a pro-choice event. Suppose he had also written, “I will continue to expose your pro-death, godless views until groups like yours won’t dare show their face on a college campus.” And suppose he had objected to an overly negative portrayal of Nazism (or even South African apartheid) rather than Communism.

Other than Eugene Volokh, how many of the people who are now upset at the violation of Daly’s First Amendment rights would still be defending fredom of speech for his right-wing counterpart?

To quote the title of Nat Hentoff’s always-relevant 1992 book: “Free Speech for Me — But Not for Thee.”

Update: A friend alerts me to an interesting case with definite similarities to this one three years ago at Saint Xavier University.

Update: Eugene Volokh emails me to make a point somewhat similar to one made by one of the commenters:

Is “silence” quite the right term? Silencing by public denunciation strikes me as not inconsistent with defending free speech against government retaliation. If, for instance, I publicly berate people who are racists — or for that matter, those who wrongly call people “racist” — in order to deter such expression, I think I’m acting quite properly.

This having been said, I agree that professors should generally encourage students to put on more events, rather than fewer, even when they disagree with the events’ theme. But if the event seems really repugnant, is it really wrong for the professor to urge a boycott, or to say that he’ll try to make the organizers ashamed to do such
things?

As to the “turns their guns” point, I agree that some such statements might be seen as unprotected threats — but here it seems important that the statement contemplated behavior by non-students against non-students, far away from campus and likely in another country. The better analogy would be “The Israeli-Palestinian conflict will end when the Israelis turn their guns on Palestinians.” That statement might be condemned, but I don’t think it could be punished as an unprotected threat; no listener would reasonably perceive that the speaker is threatening the listener’s life, nor could it be inferred that the speaker is intending to threaten the listener’s life.

Interesting point. To some extent, most of us probably do engage in “viewpoint discrimination” — at least, between “beyond the pale” viewpoints and socially acceptable viewpoints. As the commenter in this thread has noted, no one would find Daly’s language objectionable if it were directed at the Ku Klux Klan. But then again, how many people would be seriously upset if a university denied funding and office space to a campus chapter of the KKK? Of course, in this case, Daly was expressing an intent to make the expression of an “acceptable” viewpoint unacceptable on the campus.

An exhortation to kill “abortionists” seems to me to fall into the same category as Eugene’s Israeli-Palestinian example, since in neither case is there a potential call to violence directed at students.

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If it looks like anti-religious bias…

At times I’ve been harshly critical of overwrought claims of anti-religious bias over things like the “war on Christmas,” or critcism directed at a student body president who used his speech at convocation for blatant proselytizing. But does a real bias against religion, particularly religions of the traditional type, exist in the academy? I think it does, as evidenced by this story from the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire where the administration is trying to rein in religious activities by resident assistants in dormitories. (Hat tip: Erin O’Connor; I’m afraid I’m coming to this a bit late, but better late than never.)

Here’s the gist of the story, as recounted by the invaluable Foundation for Individual Rights in Education:

The controversy began on July 26, when UWEC Associate Director for Housing and Residence Life Deborah Newman sent a letter saying RAs could not lead Bible studies in their dorms at any time. Her reason for this was that students might not think Bible study-leading RAs were sufficiently “approachable.” The letter was sent to RAs who were members of the Student Impact religious group and who had been leading Bible studies—not as official residence hall activities, but in their own dorm rooms and on their own time.
Newman’s letter added that Koran and Torah studies would be similarly prohibited and that RAs who did conduct a Bible study in their dorms would face “disciplinary action.” Shocked by the ban, undergraduate RA Lance Steiger inquired further via e-mail. In a September 22 reply, Newman reiterated the ban and told him, “[a]s an RA you need to be available to your residents both in reality and from their perspective.”
Another page on the FIRE site elaborates:

Newman explained that non-Christian students and Christian students whose doctrine differs from that of the RAs might not “feel that they can turn to [the Bible study-leading RAs] in a crisis, for information, or for support and hopefully they would not feel judged or pushed in a direction that does not work for them.” According to Newman, the office’s decision was supposedly intended “to make sure RAs are accessible to all residents.” Newman also states that since Bible study leaders would naturally “contact and solicit people for [Bible study],” RAs must not lead such studies because they should “not be involved in such behaviors in their role” as RAs. She does give permission for RAs to attend (but not lead) Bible studies in their own residence halls in places other than their own rooms, or to lead Bible studies outside of their halls.

With its feet held to the FIRE (sorry about the bad pun), UWEC adopted a new stance:

Finally, in a November 8 letter, the University of Wisconsin’s general counsel attempted to justify the Bible study ban by claiming that UWEC has “consistently followed” a “viewpoint neutral” policy prohibiting RAs from organizing or leading “all organization [sic] or activities.” This claim contradicts UWEC’s own job description for RAs, which gives RAs the responsibility “[t]o help organize and promote educational, recreational, social, and cultural activities that the students want and need,” and asks them to “actively assist” in the “political” programs of the dorm. It also conflicts with the fact that the university praised an RA for leading an official dorm production of The Vagina Monologues in 2004.
“UWEC’s claim that RAs are banned from organizing any activities is not only disingenuous; it is clearly a post hoc justification of its earlier viewpoint-discriminatory restrictions on RAs’ religious expression,” remarked FIRE Director of Legal and Public Advocacy Greg Lukianoff. “Further, for a university to decide that an acceptable alternative to banning the expression of only some viewpoints is to ban all viewpoints is disgraceful and shows a real ignorance of what it means to be a university in a free society.”
Now, I should say that I disagree somewhat with FIRE’s stance. I can see the merit of the argument that allowing RAs to lead Bible study groups in their dorms could create a situation in which they use their official position to proselytize; and the UWEC policy would still allow them to lead Bible study groups in other venues. (For an interesting discussion of the issue, see this thread at the Volokh Conspiracy.) One can legitimately argue that wihin the dorm, it is difficult for to seprate what RAs do in their capacity as students and private individuals from what they do in their capacity as university employees. But if there are restrictions, they ought to be — and ought to have always been — viewpoint-neutral. In other words, if an RA cannot host a Bible study group in his or her dorm room, s/he also shouldn’t be able to host a meeting of a student group that opposes (or supports) the War in Iraq, a feminist group, a gay rights group, etc. That seems to be the UWEC position right now; but it clearly seems to be an afterthought. Indeed, as FIRE points out, the university’s job description for RAs encourages involvement in political activities in the dorm.

The praise heaped on the RA who had organized a dorm production of The Vagina Monologues clinches it. Were I in college today, I daresay I would feel much less uncomfortable seeking personal advice or support from a resident assistant who led a Bible study group — even as a non-Christian and a sexually active single woman — than from one who had organized a production of The Vagina Monologues. (Not that I can see myself seeking personal advice or support from a dorm RA, but we’re talking hypotheticals.)

So yes, it’s pretty clear that UWEC regards Bible-based Christian viewpoints as particularly likely to cause offense or make students feel excluded or “judged” from an alien perspective. Now, the university is trying to cover its bias by retroactively proscribing all political, religious or ideological activities by RAs in their dorm rooms. This ban is certainly debatable of free speech grounds; but if it stays in place, it should at least be fairly enforced. Something tells me, though, that things like The Vagina Monologues will somehow elude the ban.

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