FIRE, the Foundation of Individual Rights in Education, an admirable organization (co-founded by two admirable people, University of Pennsylvania history professor Alan Charles Kors and civil liberties attorney Harvey Silverglate) that exhibits true non-partisanship in defending free expression in the academy, looks at the John Daly brouhaha at Warren Community College.
A November 22 post on the FIRE blog, The Torch, sided unequivocally with Daly, concluding that his email to conservative student Rebecca Beach was clearly protected speech. Another post, on November 29, returns to the issue, examining some of the questions that came up in my own post about the case and in the comments.
FIRE program manager Robert Shibley writes:
FIRE has received e-mails from individuals who point out that Professor Daly seems hostile to the free exchange of ideas on campus. … As one e-mail correspondent wrote, “Daly is not the victim here. He is clearly an enemy of free speech, and his message indicates that he’s willing to abuse ‘academic freedom’ to advance his own political agenda (he’s an English professor—what business does he have telling his students to boycott a political event?)…. Set aside the offensiveness of his statement about soldiers killing their superiors. He is a state employee threatening to suppress free speech on a college campus. Isn’t this what FIRE is fighting against?”
… [F]rom what I have read, Daly was not threatening to use the apparatus of state power to silence an opposing viewpoint. He was merely expressing his own political convictions in a strong way, and did not appear to be making any physical threats against the student. In fact, what his e-mail (scroll to the bottom to read) actually “threatens” is that he will argue and agitate so successfully for his own political convictions that those who oppose him will be marginalized and embarrassed because so few will agree with them. … All in all, we have seen nothing to indicate that this was not just another vehement political disagreement between politically minded adults in our society. Is it ideal for professors to address students this way? Probably not. But respect for the principle of free speech requires one to tolerate a lot of communication that is far from ideal.
Granted, Daly’s comments don’t really appear to be those of a friend of free inquiry. Yet a principled free speech advocate must be prepared to protect the speech of even those who believe that speech should be silenced and censorship widespread.
While I find Daly’s email utterly reprehensible (not to mention idiotic), I think Shibley is right, and Warren College was wrong. The right answer to Daly’s speech was more speech: expose his lunatic politics until he’s — well, marginalized and embarrassed. Instead, conservatives in this case have chosen to go the censorship route. Too bad, for them and for academic freedom.
Footnote: Here’s an interesting question. Suppose, instead of asking for official sanctions against Daly, Rebecca Beach and her fellow conservatives had begun to agitate for students to boycott Daly’s classes.
If they succeeded to the extent that not enough people would enroll in his classes to justify continuing them, the college would presumably have a right to dismiss him (as an untenured adjunct) because his employment was no longer feasible.
Thus, a student boycott would ultimately have the same effect — albeit a delayed one — of penalizing Daly’s speech as dismissal to punish him directly for his opinions and his manner of expressing them.
What are the implications of this for academic freedom and freedom of speech?