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