Wednesday, September 17, 2003

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Academic freedom and blogs

Earlier this month, Indiana University professor Eric Rasmusen got into some hot water with with his blog. He wrote a post asserting that homosexuals should not be put in positions of moral leadership over children because, "I think they are attracted to people under age 18 more than heterosexual males are..."

Needless to say, this prompted some hostile reactions, which trickled up to Rasmusen's dean in the business school. There was then a discussion between Rasmusen and his dean about whether the blog should be moved off IU's server. Rasmusen volunteered to move it himself, and did so until his dean informed him that the blog did not violate policy, at which point Rasmusen moved back. During this brouhaha, there was some debate in the blogosphere about the relative merits of online academic freedom. But with the dean's decision, things were dying down.

Today, however, IU Chancellor Sharon Brehm upped the ante by arguing that the university needs to revisit it's policy of supporting blogs. Press reports are here and here. Rasmusen reprints the entirety of Brehm's comments (and his response) on his blog. Here's an excerpt of the chancellor's comments:

The postings on this website have created the difficult challenge of affirming the right to speak, even when we deplore the speech itself. As hard as this is, it is the only way to maintain our liberty. It's easy to defend freedom of speech when we agree with or don't care about the speech itself. Only when the speech offends us, do we realize the strength and courage of those who wrote the first amendment and all those after them who have affirmed and upheld it.

In exercising my freedom to speak against Professor Rasmusen's statements, I also provide the opportunity for others to agree or disagree with my views.

There is, however, another more general issue that President Daleke [President of the Bloomington Faculty Council] and I have discussed at some length. We agree that it would be useful to ask the UFC [University Faculty Council] to review the current policies, practices, guidelines, costs, and benefits of "Mypage," the UITS service for personal Web pages. It seems to us that, as a community of scholars and students, it is crucial to think through the role of these personal web pages in our communal and intellectual life.

I'd like to close with a quote that I found while working on this statement for this meeting: "But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error." John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, 1859.

My thoughts on this are pretty simple:

If Brehm really read what she said -- and what Mill said -- then there is no need for a review. The "role of these personal web pages in our communal and intellectual life" is to promote the free and full expression of ideas by professors and students alike. As Mill himself would point out, the cure for promulgated ideas that are believed to be offensive or wrong is more speech, not less.

Brehm exercised that right and encouraged others to do the same -- in, among other formats, on blogs. What need there is for a review beyond that is truly beyond me.

[Wait, wait, you forgot the ritual denunciation of Rasmusen's views on homosexuality.--ed. That's completely irrelevant to this question. As an aside, however, it's worth highlighting a fact that Louis Menand pointed out in The Metaphysical Club. One of the triggering events for the emergence of academic freedom was when a Stanford University professor was fired for making a speech that contradicted co-founder Jane Stanford's views on the matter. The professor made a eugenicist argument against Asian immigration.]

posted by Dan on 09.17.03 at 03:09 PM


"As Mill himself would point out, the cure for promulgated ideas that are believed to be offensive or wrong is more speech, not less."

True. That way, one can find out who the bigots are. Rasmussen clearly is one.

Then any gay students can keep clear from him.

posted by: raj on 09.17.03 at 03:09 PM [permalink]

Beyond Rasmusen's statement being offensive and inaccurate, it's worth recognizing that "more speech" isn't always the panacea Mill thought it was. While the free speech defense might make sense in a nonhierarchical society, in reality, the speech of the powerful impresses its view upon the world, often concealing the truth of powerlessness. So while Mill's notion of free speech supports Rasmusen's academic freedom on the belief that consensus and progress are facilitated by allowing all views, however divergent and unorthodox, it fails to notice that homophobia is not at all divergent or unorthodox. In this case free speech does not enhance equal social and political power, but rather supports political oppression, and exists as an obstacle to social change on behalf of gays and lesbians.

posted by: on 09.17.03 at 03:09 PM [permalink]

Anonymous guy:

You're saying that "the speech of the powerful" does not deserve protection. The problem is that, by definition, any speech that gets banned is not the speech of the powerful. In this case, the powerful is not Rasmusen, but the school administrator who responded to complaints about Rasmusen's speech.

And I don't think Mill wrote that speech needs to "enhance equal social and political power" of an outgroup to be protected.

posted by: Hei Lun Chan on 09.17.03 at 03:09 PM [permalink]

Anonymous guy- yours is the pathetic oft-used by the left argument that allowing absolute freedom of speech equals 'oppression". What about the fact that if it werent for allowing free speech, the homosexual lobby would be in the closet, because a majority of the US population ( outside of university towns) have little or no tolerance for the homosexual agenda and lifestyle, and consider homosexuality abberant behavior?

posted by: leaderlesswarrior on 09.17.03 at 03:09 PM [permalink]

I teach at a public university that forbids me from using university resources in order to take a stance on political issues. This is extremely tricky when one teaches political rhetoric.

This is an exception to my experience at universities, but my state legislature is not known for protecting unpopular speech. In my experience at universities, it's become clear that administrators are primarily concerned about avoiding lawsuits, and in their concern for that, will engage in behavior that gets them lawsuits from another side. In this case, I'd guess the U is worried about gay students winning grade appeals hands down (and the hostile environment issue).

But, personally, I'd say the same thing someone else said--it's useful for gay students to know who the homophobes are, so they can avoid them.

posted by: Trish on 09.17.03 at 03:09 PM [permalink]

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