Promote civility in free speech

In response to your editorial, “Deny claims of free speech suppression” (March 3): President Lawrence has never responded in any forum public or private to the English Department’s letter about free speech on campus, so as a member of that department I am grateful to the Justice for bringing that letter up in your recent editorial. That letter’s central point is that President Lawrence’s denunciation of unspecified statements by unnamed professors creates a chilling effect on campus. When authorities in an institution condemn and abhor statements of those who work or study beneath them in that institution, especially in a vague and open-ended way,  the most important casualty is the open dialogue that is the lifeblood of a university.  The same is true of the president’s email criticizing an unnamed student who made unspecified tweets during the height of the nationwide Black Lives Matter campaign.

 The Justice editorial argues that the open letter condemning various faculty statements was not an address by the President in his role as president because it was sent from his personal email.  But (in case you are tempted to send one out yourself) it is worth remembering that such an e-mail blast is a power reserved for those on top of the university hierarchy.

 One reason this debate about what it means to stifle free speech matters is that, in many of President Lawrence’s statements about faculty and student speech, he has blurred a crucial line: between vulgar personal attacks on named individuals and statements of political views that criticize institutions, political groups or nations. Face-to-face civility is an important value, and “fighting words” or words that create fear in individuals directly addressed can be unacceptable (Indeed, it could be argued that President Lawrence’s words warning faculty against expressing certain views did create  fear among employees of the university.) But the importance of personal civility should not inhibit the expression of diverse political views, no matter how vehemently those views are expressed.

It is ironic that the Justice has denounced the English department letter to President Lawrence without giving readers a chance to see the letter itself—which was submitted for publication to the Justice in September 2014 but never appeared. Readers can judge for themselves:  a copy of the English department’s “Open Letter to President Lawrence” of September 19, 2014 can be found  on the Hoot website.

—Prof. John Plotz is a professor of English. 

Sound alarm for academic speech

In response to your editorial, “Deny claims of free speech suppression” (March 3): At a time when the ideal of free speech is darkening and fading at universities all over the country on all wavelengths of the political spectrum (see, for instance, the cases of Steven Salaita at the University of Illinois, of John McAdams at Marquette, of Wendy Kaminer at Smith), and at a place where free expression has been repeatedly harried and harassed (see, among many examples, your stories on Donald Hindley, on the posting of drawings by Palestinian children, on the release of the Concerned List emails, on the semester-long suppression of Gravity), it little behooves the Justice editorial board to swipe your light sabers at us messengers. You should know that the seemingly uncontroversial appeal to civility is an Orwellian trick, a ubiquitous new meme, a viral and virulent national PR gambit apparently developed and coordinated among hundreds of administrators as a way of discouraging speech that they don’t judge harmless enough. When the canaries sing less exuberantly than they used to, the Justice should check the ventilation in the coalmine.  It’s noxious and chilling. We need more of that disinfecting sunshine. 
—Prof. William Flesch is a professor of English