Thursday, October 19, 2006

"I’m afraid that hallways and office doors are not ‘free-speech zones’"

[Posted by reader_iam]

A Marquette University Ph.D candidate finds himself in a free-speech controversy after having posted a Dave Barry quote on his office door.
In late August, Ditsler posted a quote by Dave Barry on his office door in the philosophy department. The quote read, “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 September 5, Philosophy Department Chair James South sent Ditsler an e-mail stating that he had received several complaints and therefore removed the quote. He wrote, “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.”

Is that "patently offensive"? Even if it is, how does it rise to the level of justifying undercutting the free exchange of ideas on a university campus? What about Stuart Ditsler's right of free speech?

I'm a little bit puzzled about South's statement that he is a "strong supporter of academic freedom." What does that mean, exactly? That he'd have no problem if Ditsler wrote and published whole articles on the same theme expressed in Barry's quote? That it'd be just fine if Ditsler taught a unit, or even a whole course centered around the sentiment expressed in the quote, complete with accompanying handouts (including one featuring Barry's quip)? If that's so, it seems rather ridiculous--to say the least--to remove a piece of paper from an office door.

If the latter would fall under South's definition of academic freedom, that essentially would mean that classrooms are "free-speech" zones, but hallways and office doors on the same campus aren't. I could barely keep a straight face typing the previous sentence. How the heck could South do so while maintaining that position, if indeed that is his personal position?

Well, one could infer that he is able to do so based on material in Marquette's Faculty Handbook, from which South quotes in his email to "Graduate Instructors in Room 132F::
(a) The teacher is entitled to full freedom in research and in the publication of results, subject to the adequate performance of his/her other academic duties; but research for pecuniary return should be based upon an understanding with the authorities of the institution.

(b) The teacher is entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing his/her subject. This freedom must be integrated with the right of the students not to be victimized and the rights of the institution to have its accepted aims respected.

(c) The college or university teacher is a citizen, a member of a learned profession, and an officer of an educational institution.
When he/she speaks or writes as a citizen, he/she should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but his/her special position in the civil community imposes special obligations. As a man/woman of learning and an educational officer, he/she should remember that the public may judge his/her profession and institution by his her utterances. Hence, he/she should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that he/she is not an institutional spokesperson.

Thus...hallways and doorways are not "free-speech zones." How about that.

The FIRE press release notes another controversy over posted material:
Marquette’s affinity for censorship is reminiscent of the attitudes that several universities adopted during last February’s Mohammed cartoon controversy. In March, FIRE reported that administrators at Century College in suburban Minnesota told geography professor Karen Murdock to remove her display of the Mohammed cartoons, even after she posted them behind a curtain to avoid offending unsuspecting passers-by. In response to that controversy, administrators instituted a new policy demanding that professors get all materials approved before posting them on bulletin boards. Murdock reports that this new policy has seriously hindered professors’ ability to post materials as they please.

Slippery slope? Or reasonable policy?

Only somewhat tangentially, I myself am reminded of the ongoing flap over Kevin Barrett, 9/11 denialist and part-time teacher at the University of Wisconsin, about whom Ann Althouse has blogged numerous times, most recently here. The latter link is interesting, in particular, because of the extension of the Barrett controversy from the classroom to a public lecture sponsored by a university group. Should the speech "allowed" get more or less free as one moves away from or closer to the actual classroom setting?

In other words, what lines should we draw, if any, and where should we draw them? I think there is some real complexity (including, in Barrett's case, with regard to hiring practices, but I won't digress) to the larger issues, but I don't think the one that Marquette has drawn makes sense. In fact, I find it alarming in the context of a college campus.

Now, Cato@Liberty makes the point that Marquette is a private university:
Marquette is a private university and is thus free under the First Amendment to regulate speech as it chooses. But if libertarian jests are “patently offensive” and subject to censorship at Marquette, it might want to note that in a new paragraph of its academic freedom guidelines and perhaps in the catalog provided to prospective students.

Does Marquette's status make a difference to you? If you're a lawyer, which I'm not, does it make a legal difference, and should it?

I'm sympathetic in theory to the distinction that the Cato blog is acknowledging. I have to be, because otherwise I couldn't take the position that you can't just do, say, or post absolutely anything you want at your workplace, for example. And I do indeed--within definite limits--take the position that private businesses and organizations have the right to set standards of behavior and order to facilitate their primary missions. Association with them, after all, is a voluntary activity.

The situation at Marquette, however, strikes me as fundamentally different, precisely due to the specific type of workplace, and its specific context and purpose.

I've not meant to overlook the point that we're talking about a Dave Barry quote, of all things, nor ignore the questions as to whether or not it's objectively "patently offensive" and who decides that. (Nor the fact that Barry is, for crying out loud, a humorist--one with whom, by the way, as an amusing digression, I share a common ex-employer, though he worked there before my time; however, a boss of mine was an ex-roommate of his.)

Nick Gillespie handles those issues well, I think:
Reason interviewed Dave Barry a decade ago. It's a very funny interview well worth reading and even committing to memory, though I should warn all fan(s) of The Five Man Electrical Band that he/they will find it "patently offensive":

Barry: My nomination right off the top my head [for the worst rock 'n' roll song of all time] is a song that was a hit in the '70s--"Signs, signs, everywhere signs, blocking up the scenery, breaking my mind, do this, don't do that, can't you read the signs?" Basically a diatribe against property rights....It' s a real smug self-righteous punk kid saying nobody has the right to tell him what to do and how dare you put a sign up saying that I can't go on your property? Hey, kid! Stick this sign up your ass.