Thursday, October 19, 2006

Marquette: We Can’t Allow Speech To Which Somebody Objects

It’s been all over the news: the fact that Marquette Philosophy Chair James South tore down a quote from columnist Dave Barry that was posted on the office door of a graduate student.

South explained that people “complained” about the quote, and that it was “patently offensive.”

What was the terrible thing that the graduate student posted? Judge for yourself:
“As Americans we must always remember that we all have a common enemy, an enemy that is dangerous, powerful, and relentless. I refer, of course, to the federal government.”
In an e-mail to the student (one Stuart Ditsler) South explained his rationale for the censorship.
I had several complaints today about a quotation that was on the door of CH 132F. I’ve taken the quotation down. While I am a strong supporter of academic freedom, I’m afraid that hallways and office doors are not “free-speech zones.” If material is patently offensive and has no obvious academic import or university sanction, I have little choice but to take note.
Ditsler, doubtless astounded by the effrontery of this message, replied as follows.
Dr. South,

Because I know that it is tricky trying to convey the right tone over e-mail, I’m going to make an extra effort to be respectful. I just want to express my concerns about a discrepancy in the way this matter has been handled. To wit, last year Dr. [redacted], who I like, respect, and admire very much, posted a cartoon by Pat Oliphant of the Washington Post about the ethical principles (or lack thereof) in the Bush administration that stayed on his door for I believe the entire academic year. The year before that, you posted a piece on your door immediately after the 2004 presidential election criticizing “family values” voters for preferring Bush and the Republican Party to Kerry and the Democrats. What this tells me is that doors and hallways are not “free speech zones” (a Bush administration term, which is ironic in itself) only when the opinions expressed are contrary to those of the majority of the members of the department. Nor do I see, in the first place, what is “patently offensive” about a quotation (taken from a Dave Barry piece) the import of which is that we should always be on guard against the expansion of government power, a sentiment that has been expressed by too many brilliant thinkers for me to even try to recount them (although I will drop Thomas Jefferson’s name). By contrast, the two aforementioned pieces are explicitly critical of a particular political party and a particular administration.

In sum, I feel like not only is the department treating me unfairly, but the complaints are without merit in the first place. I am deeply concerned, and have been since I arrived, about the intellectual atmosphere of the department. This only gives me more reason to worry.

Thank you for taking the time to take my concerns into account, and I sincerely hope that I have been able to convey a properly respectful tone.

best,
Stuart
[emphasis added]
That’s right. Professors had posted partisan anti-Bush cartoons on their doors, and left them there for months, with no attempt at censorship.

South responded with an e-mail that entirely missed the point.
Hello Stuart,

Thanks for your e-mail. I take it that you are responsible for the message on the door?

As I said in the e-mail, I am happy to talk with you about this matter. E-mail does not seem a very helpful way of have a thorough discussion.

Just to be clear, I don’t go around policing doors. I received complaints and that meant I had to take note of what was on the door. I did not do so unilaterally, but consulted two members of the Executive Committee and the Assistant Chair. My action and my e-mail to those using 132F were merely informational and designed to minimize offense to others. They were in no way related to any disciplinary procedure. Also, as I made clear, nothing in my e-mail is related to the responsible use of academic freedom in the context of the classroom.

I’m sorry if you’re bemused by my use of the term “free speech zone” -- I was not using it in the sense in which you construed it, but merely pointing to the fact that university office buildings, like shopping malls and restaurants, are not unregulated spaces.

The larger concerns you raise, while interesting, are not connected to my decision to remove the unattributed passage that was on the door of 132F. My action was based on specific complaints and consultation with other faculty in a leadership role in the department.

Finally, I encourage you to reread the passage I sent from the Marquette Faculty Handbook regarding academic freedom and its correlative responsibilities.

Sincerely,

James South
The passage from the Faculty Handbook involved responsibilities that accompany academic freedom for faculty. Nothing in the Handbook said that faculty have a responsibility never to express opinions that somebody might disagree with.

South claims “I received complaints and that meant I had to take note of what was on the door.” Why? Nothing was on the door but a political opinion that some leftists might take offense at.

Further, South claims that “I did not do so unilaterally, but consulted two members of the Executive Committee and the Assistant Chair.”

A thoroughly damning statement. It makes it clear that intolerant groupthink dominates the decision-making processes of the Philosophy Department.

Ditsler, getting no satisfaction from his department, went to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. They sent a letter to Marquette President Fr. Robert Wild, outlining the case and asking for a response. Wild took his time responding, and FIRE went public with the issue.

Wild did eventually send FIRE a response, however.
October 16, 2006


Ms. Tara E. Sweeney
Senior Program Officer
Foundation for Individual Rights in Education
601 Walnut Street, Suite 510
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19106

Deal Ms. Sweeney:

I have received your letter dated September 27, 2006, regarding an incident that occurred in Marquette’s Philosophy Department.

I believe this matter has now been resolved within the academic department, as properly it should be, and that the original difficulty arose out of misunderstanding. However, I do want to correct a few points in your letter. Specifically, when the quotation cited was posted, it was without attribution; therefore, someone reading the quotation may not have understood the humor/satire of Dave Barry. Second, the e-mail from Dr. James South, Chair of the Philosophy Department, was sent not only to Mr. Stuart Ditsler but to all four students who occupied the shared graduate student office. At the time, Dr. South was unaware of who had posted the flier.

As you correctly point out in your letter, Marquette is a private, Catholic institution. That does not in any way diminish the importance we place on the principles of academic freedom. Marquette’s Faculty Handbook states, “academic freedom is prized as essential to Marquette University and to its living growth as a university.”

Thank you for taking the time to write.

Sincerely,


Robert A. Wild, S.J.
This is an ineffectual, indeed almost bizarre response.

Wild asserts that “when the quotation cited was posted, it was without attribution; therefore, someone reading the quotation may not have understood the humor/satire of Dave Barry.”

The implication here is that the quote would have been acceptable if people had known it was satire, but since they took it seriously, it had to be torn down.

In other words, nobody is allowed to seriously say, on the Marquette campus, that the Federal government is our enemy.

Dave Barry, being a libertarian, almost certainly seriously believes that the Federal government is our enemy -- notwithstanding the humor in his writing.

Wild’s statement about how “academic freedom is prized as essential to Marquette University” would be comical, if censoring free speech could ever be comical.

It’s time to tell the truth about Robert Wild, S.J.

He is utterly ineffective in dealing with the excesses of politically correct faculty and administrators. A well-meaning Jesuit, he simply fails to understand what is going on.

He’s actually capable of saying “academic freedom is prized as essential to Marquette University” while trampling on academic freedom. It’s a problem of intellectual horsepower.

We doubt that if a female student came to the Administration complaining about a case of sexual harassment that had not been properly dealt with at a lower level she would have been blown off in the way Ditsler was. But this is academia, political correctness reigns, and free speech takes a back seat.

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