Blogs > Cliopatria > Free Speech at Marquette and BC

Oct 20, 2006 7:33 am

Free Speech at Marquette and BC

You may have seen the story about Stuart Ditsler, a graduate student teaching assistant in philosophy at Marquette, who posted this note on his office door in late August:
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.

On grounds that it was"patently offensive," his department's chairperson, James South, removed the note and, on 5 September, sent an e-mail to all of the department's student teaching assistants."I'm afraid that hallways and office doors are not 'free-speech zones,'" he wrote."If material is patently offensive and has no obvious academic import or university sanction, I have little choice but to take note."

When Ditsler appealed to FIRE, it sent a letter of complaint to Marquette's president. Having no response from Marquette, FIRE made news of the incident public on Wednesday. Now, Marquette's public relations office takes refuge in the fact that Ditsler's note did not include attribution of the quotation to Dave Barry and claims that, if it had included attribution, the incident might have been handled otherwise.

Where to begin? The bureaucratic excuse that we needed to be told that a humorist said this is laughable. Do the canons of a peer-reviewed journal now apply to a post-it note on my office door? At University Diaries, the Cranky Professor suggests that we can look forward to the appointment of"Door Review Committees." Much more problematic is Professor South's assertion that"hallways and office doors are not 'free-speech zones'." Why, pray tell, are they not? And why must speech be"zoned"? If he thinks what Dave Barry wrote has"no obvious academic import," would South bar serious consideration of Barry's suggestion in a classroom? Has the controlling instinct overcome all sense of free speech in the philosophy department chairperson?

If South and Marquette were slam-dunk wrong, the caseof BostonCollege is more complicated. Apparently without consulting either student or faculty opinion, it has adopted new rules requiring any campus organization paying a guest speaker out of student fees to espouse a position opposed to the official teaching of the Catholic church either to sponsor an additional speaker who supports the church's position or face the cancellation of its event.

Hiram Hover has a fair-minded post about what is problematic in this new rule. I'd go beyond him to argue that the imposition of this new rule without student and faculty consultation is not how academic communities should be governed. Apart from that, the new rule seems reasonable in that a) it avoids barring speech contrary to the church's position; and b) it recognizes that the appropriate response to speech issues calls for more speech, not less of it. The rule is, of course, asymmetrical, because it doesn't require a speaker in opposition to anyone espousing a position compatible with that of the church. That's a concession you may have to grant a private, church-related institution.

Hiram is right, however, to wonder whether the rule will be selectively applied. Will an advocate of capital punishment be met by an opposing speaker as readily as an advocate of abortion rights is? I'm inclined to give Catholic higher education some benefit of the doubt on matters like this and rely on the vigilance of its students and faculty members to demand equity. It was, after all, Notre Dame that invited Tariq Ramadan to take a position on its faculty and it was secular authority that denied him a visa to this country.

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Lisa Casanova - 10/24/2006

I'll claim to be a libertarian, and I see the situation as simple. Yes, a private institution has every right to run their affairs as they see fit. No, that does not mean that they should be exempt from criticism for failing to maintain an environment conducive to the free and open exchange of ideas. Just because you are free to make a choice does not mean you are above criticism for making a bad choice. Those of us who believe that a university should be a place where all ideas are expressed and debated have no problem advocating for private institutions to aspire to these ideals, and criticizing them when they fall short.

Ralph E. Luker - 10/22/2006

I can't see that BC privileges dogma any more than Antioch or Hillsdale do. The difference is that, at BC, there will be the occasional speaker against the reigning orthodoxy.

Ralph E. Luker - 10/22/2006

It's hard to find any argument in what you say because you shifted sides on the Marquette case. I've never claimed to be a libertarian.

Grant W Jones - 10/22/2006

And as usual Ralph you evade every issue I bring up.

You, and your friends over at Liberty and Power, should not confuse hatred of the state (or the federal government) and the advocacy of anarchy with a love of liberty.

As for "libertarian" arguments, I have actually read the works of Hayek and von Mises. How much of their views on economic liberty do you share?

Oscar Chamberlain - 10/22/2006


I never said I thought that the BC and Marquette were equally wrong, simply that I opposed both actions. the Marquette actions was thoughtless and peremptory (if not dictatorial) as well as wrong. that is worse.

In the case of BC, the privileging of dogma, though perfectly legal, cuts against the grain of their role as a college. Now that privileging looks comparatively light, but is it? It sounds to me like the the people inviting the speaker with unsound doctrine have to pay for another speaker and have to be able to arrange payment for both at the same time.

Ralph E. Luker - 10/22/2006

If you are talking about the law, private, even secular, institutions do have the right to and do privilege certain beliefs. Compare the list of speakers at, say, Antioch College with the list of speakers at, say, Hillsdale College. Do I think that's a good thing? What I think is pretty irrelevant. Those secular institutions market themselves in a way that means that there just isn't much, if any, demand in the student body or the faculty, for that matter, for an aggressive advocate of free market capitalism at Antioch or a feminist advocate for abortion rights at Hillsdale. By comparison with either Antioch or Hillsdale, BC's new rule is a paragon of open-mindedness, unless of course you think that BC must be required to balance every homily given at mass with some agnostic or atheist's speech. That ain't gonna happen.

Oscar Chamberlain - 10/22/2006

Sorry I did not reply sooner. Busy weekend.

The phase that led to my question was this one: "The rule is, of course, asymmetrical, because it doesn't require a speaker in opposition to anyone espousing a position compatible with that of the church. That's a concession you may have to grant a private, church-related institution."

Let me rephrase my question: do you belive that private but secular institutions should have a similar right to privilege certain beliefs.

Ralph E. Luker - 10/22/2006

Unfortunately, I was indiscriminate enough to have read what you wrote and you switched from a) defending Marquette's action to b) not defending it. As usual, you loudly defended both positions. You wouldn't recognize a libertarian argument if you saw one. Take your rants back over to Free Republic where you have plenty of company.

Grant W Jones - 10/21/2006

Ralph, if you had bothered to read what I wrote you would have noticed that I'm not defending Marquette's action. I'm just pointing out that two wrongs don't make a right. As to the message being "libertarian," that's another debate.

However, I have to wonder what the attitude of all those now wrapping themselves up in the First Amendment would be if the instructor had posted something else. For instance, a reproduction of Titian's "Venus of Urbino" or a quote from the Minuteman. Actually, I don't have wonder.

Regarding the former, I'll just remind you that free speech in the American workplace died about twenty-years ago thanks to university bred feminists and their lawyers. For those who have real jobs, the standard of discourse is established by the biggest hypersensitive crybaby in the vicinity.

As to the latter, the result would be a Columbia University style riot with many faculty acting as cheerleaders. Funny how all the First Amendment absolutists fail to comment or note everytime a conservative (or libertarian) is prevented from speaking, or harrassed for trying to speak, at a university.

Ralph E. Luker - 10/21/2006

Grant, Get over your culture war mentality. It's boring. Since you didn't bother to read what it said, the sentiment that the young student teacher posted was a libertarian one -- not either a distinctively Republican or Democrat one. The libertarian in me says that a faculty member should basically be free to post whatever the faculty member cares to on the door. That means that they need to be prepared to take whatever the post-it provokes, as well.

Grant W Jones - 10/21/2006

Ralph, you are wrong as usual. The question is how this sort of thing affects students. How is a professor who wears his politics on his sleeve (and a chip on his shoulder?) going to create a rapport and relationship of trust with all his students?

When I was attending UHH there were entire department bulletin boards devoted to Democratic partisan politics. Is this your idea of professionalism? If a conservative professor did the same thing it would be just as unprofessional and adolescent.

David T. Beito - 10/21/2006

Good questions. Also, it might be asked where the line begin and end between "ideology" and interpretation.

For example, is the claim that FDR was a "great wartime leader" an ideological claim?

Would it be ideological to unfavorably, or favorably, compare George Bush's policies in Iraq to those of previous presidents or a matter of legitimate classroom inquiry?

Ralph E. Luker - 10/21/2006

It's hard for me to imagine how that question arises in your mind from anyone that I said, Oscar. Private institutions, religious and secular, have greater latitude in self-governance than do public ones. I made _no_ argument that religious institutions _should_ have greater latitude in self-governance than secular ones. You are, however, headed in the direction of demanding that private, religious institutions must operate on premises other than their own -- especially if you think they must have a symmetrical requirement of balance among speakers.

Oscar Chamberlain - 10/21/2006

I oppose the actions at both universities. But are you suggesting that a religiously based private school should have greater latitude for limiting speech than a secular one? Or is it that you see the action at Marquette as inherently worse, regardless of context?

Ralph E. Luker - 10/20/2006

I find it very odd, but telling, that your libertarianism wouldn't lead you to more, you know, a libertarian instinctive reaction to this incident. I have no doubt but that if the sentiment posted on the young philosophy student's door had had a more "conservative" flavor to it, you'd be up in arms about it. But, yes, private institutions have greater latitude than public institutions in self-governance. Marquette's response to FIRE is pretty good indication that it is somewhat embarrassed by South's actions -- as it ought to be.

Grant W Jones - 10/20/2006

Is Marquette a private university? And if so don't they have the right to set professional standards for their employees?

Ralph E. Luker - 10/20/2006

I'd certainly support your right to do that or, even, to claim to do that, but I'd also wonder if your decisions about what subjects students will read about, what you will discuss in class, what kinds of assignments you make, and what you ask about on tests aren't, in a more subtle way, directed by an ideology that you appear to want to deny. Moreover, I'd want to know whether you think it appropriate to have rules about whether faculty members and/or students must follow your example of classroom "neutrality." And do you feel free to hang your ideology on your office wall next to your overcoat, where students can see it?

John Richard Clark - 10/20/2006

A professor's personal politics is like his or her overcoat---useful outside the academy, but too insular, stifling, and inhibiting if worn in the classroom. For that reason, I leave my overcoat and my ideology inside my office.

Alan Allport - 10/20/2006

James South's prohibition begins with the usual pompous cant that: "while I am a strong supporter of academic freedom ..." [etc.] Wouldn't it be refreshing for one of these campus censors to admit for a change: "while I don't give a tinker's cuss about academic freedom, at least anyone else's anyway ..."