By now, most are familiar with the national tempest over conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh’s comments about Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke, and her testimony to Congress about whether Georgetown and other Catholic universities should have to cover birth control through their insurance policies. Predictably, the controversy has spilled over to a university campus. But the campus is the University of Rochester, and the issue is not contraception, but campus policing of speech.
UR economics professor Steven Landsburg addressed the arguments of Limbaugh and Fluke on his blog, The Big Questions, with three entries. In the first blog entry, “Rush to Judgment,” Landsburg states that while Fluke deserves respect as a human being, her position does not. He defended in economic terms Limbaugh’s (obviously joking) suggestion that those who use subsidized contraception should have to tape their sexual activities and post them online so that the benefit can be shared by those doing the subsidizing.
Landsburg called Fluke an “extortionist with an overweening sense of entitlement,” and in his second blog entry, he gave the nickname “contraceptive sponges” to “people who want others to pay for their contraception because — well, just because they don’t want to pay for it themselves.” Landsburg then discussed the pros and cons of six arguments that contraception should be subsidized. The third blog entry suggested that perhaps the best way to subsidize contraception fairly is simply to tax men and to give women cash.
This went over very poorly with folks at UR. At least 17 students even barged into Landsburg’s class and formed a line blocking him off from his students. (Landsburg continued to lecture.) And UR president Joel Seligman sent out a memo blasting Landsburg’s blog entries, saying that he was “outraged that any professor would demean a student in this fashion.”
Thankfully for free speech, however, Seligman also said:
Professor Landsburg has the right to express his views under our university’s deep commitment to academic freedom.
Landsburg responded to Seligman in a fourth blog entry.
While UR is private and does not have to guarantee free speech, it nevertheless does so, as do most private universities (and such promises have especially clear legal force in the state of New York). After all, attracting quality students and faculty is likely to be much harder for a university that tells its community free thought is unwelcome on campus. UR states:
Freedom of expression of ideas and action is not to be limited by acts of intimidation, political or ideological oppression, abuse of authority, or threat of physical harm and well-being.
That freedom extends to both Landsburg and Seligman as well as to UR as an institution, and as university president, Seligman had the right to both personally and institutionally condemn Landsburg’s remarks as long as UR takes no official action against the professor for his expression.
Unfortunately, despite the fact that all public universities and the vast majority of private universities are supposed to protect unpopular views on campus, the reality is quite different. According to a study (large PDF) by the Association of American Colleges & Universities, less than 20 percent of faculty members strongly agreed that it was “safe to hold unpopular positions” on their campus. This is borne out by multiple cases from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (where I work), such as that of SUNY Fredonia’s Steven Kershnar, who was denied promotion because of his op-eds in a local newspaper, or Purdue University-Calumet’s Maurice Eisenstein, who was investigated under nine complaints of harassment for his Facebook comments about Islamist violence.
While Seligman had the right to condemn Landsburg, whether doing so was wise is a different issue. This article from UC Berkeley, which points out that its chancellor condemned an affirmative action bake sale on campus last fall but not a recent appearance from Louis Farrakhan, shows us why. Once a university president takes the position that some expression (like Landsburg’s) is beyond the pale, that president risks looking like a political hack when he or she fails to condemn equally controversial statements from the other side of the political spectrum.
Most worrisome, however, is the fact that UR allowed its students to disrupt Landsburg’s class without any consequences, despite the fact that campus security was on the scene. What happened in Landsburg’s class is a textbook example of “mob censorship,” where a group of people silence or drown out a speaker with whose views they disagree. A classroom is perhaps the least appropriate place for something like this to happen, and the fact that UR did not see fit to clear the heckling students out of the class is disturbing. If UR truly values “freedom of expression of ideas and action,” it should make clear that those who engage in mob censorship will be punished and that it will tolerate no further disruptions of campus speakers, be they professors like Landsburg or (the more common target) invited speakers like former Congressman Tom Tancredo, Minutemen leader Jim Gilchrist, or General David Petraeus.