Civil War

by Gerald Dworkin

By some strange coincidence, the Chancellors of the two Universities at which I spent the longest periods of my career– University of California and University of Illinois–have turned into poster children for current administrative cant about free speech and its limits.

Chancellor Wise and the Salaita decision were the subject of my blog piece last week. Since then the Board of Trustees at UIUC has affirmed her decision by a vote of 8 to 1. Salaita's only recourse now is a law-suit or accepting the inevitable settlement offer of the University. For our sake, I would hope that there is a lawsuit which would enable his lawyers to uncover more about donor pressures which were certainly focused on his viewpoint and not just their mode of expression. For his sake, I would hope for a suitably large settlement which not only would, to some extent, mitigate his losses but might convince the business-oriented administrators of our universities that it is too expensive to treat faculty in this fashion.

In mitten drinnen, as my people would say, Chancellor Nicholas Dirks, of the University of California Berkeley (where I got my Ph.d in 1966) issued a statement about academic civility to mark the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement. Although I was in London writing my thesis when FSM occurred I was an active participant in the various protests which led up to it — including the famous May 1960 San Francisco City Hall anti-House Un-American Activities Committee protests which ended in mass arrests.

For those of you who do not know much about FSM this is informative.

This is the text of the Chancellor's remarks:

Dear Campus Community,

This Fall marks the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement, which made the right to free expression of ideas a signature issue for our campus, and indeed for universities around the world. Free speech is the cornerstone of our nation and society – which is precisely why the founders of the country made it the First Amendment to the Constitution. For a half century now, our University has been a symbol and embodiment of that ideal

As we honor this turning point in our history, it is important that we recognize the broader social context required in order for free speech to thrive. For free speech to have meaning it must not just be tolerated, it must also be heard, listened to, engaged and debated. Yet this is easier said than done, for the boundaries between protected and unprotected speech, between free speech and political advocacy, between the campus and the classroom, between debate and demagoguery, between freedom and responsibility, have never been fully settled. As a consequence, when issues are inherently divisive, controversial and capable of arousing strong feelings, the commitment to free speech and expression can lead to division and divisiveness that undermine a community's foundation. This fall, like every fall, there will be no shortage of issues to animate and engage us all. Our capacity to maintain that delicate balance between communal interests and free expression, between openness of thought and the requirements and disciplines of academic knowledge, will be tested anew.

Specifically, we can only exercise our right to free speech insofar as we feel safe and respected in doing so, and this in turn requires that people treat each other with civility. Simply put, courteousness and respect in words and deeds are basic preconditions to any meaningful exchange of ideas. In this sense, free speech and civility are two sides of a single coin – the coin of open, democratic society.

Insofar as we wish to honor the ideal of Free Speech, therefore, we should do so by exercising it graciously. This is true not just of political speech on Sproul Plaza, but also in our everyday interactions with each other – in the classroom, in the office, and in the lab.

This is not a completely idiotic statement but it contains enough mistakes and confusions to throw into doubt the rather hopeful outlook of many Berkeley faculty when they heard of his appointment. The most egregious sentence is this one:

…for the boundaries between protected and unprotected speech, between free speech and political advocacy, between the campus and the classroom, between debate and demagoguery, between freedom and responsibility, have never been fully settled.

His claim is true with respect to “protected and unprotected speech”, nonsensical with respect to “free speech and political advocacy”, infelicitous with respect to “campus and the classroom”, irrelevant with respect to “debate and demagoguery,” and confused with respect to “freedom and responsibility”.

Nonsensical, because political advocacy is what, among other things, free speech is designed to protect. Infelicitous, because the classroom is part of the campus. Irrelevant, because demagoguery is a part of debate that ought to be protected. Confused, because freedom and responsibility are distinct values and it is not the boundaries that are unclear but how to weight them.

There are other misleading statements. Free Speech is not merely an “ideal”–although it is that as well–but a Constitutional right. The claim that “we can only exercise our right to free speech insofar as we feel safe and respected in doing so” is, as an empirical claim, false. The FSM demonstrators did not feel safe and respected as the police hauled them off from Sproul Hall. “Our capacity to maintain that delicate balance between communal interests and free expression” ignores the extent to which Bill of Rights protections are meant to settle that balance in some areas, for some purposes. If you don't approve of that balance there is an amendment process.

I regard Dirks statement as dangerous and misleading in two respects. The first–which has been represented in many academic blogs, and the statement of the Council of UC Faculty Associations –is its threat to dissident speech.

The second respect–which reflects my own views about the relation between civility and the First Amendment–is that it threatens to further confirm the confusion between what legal protections ought to apply to academic employees in public institutions and the important ideal of civil discourse which –giving him the benefit of the doubt– Dirks espouses. With such friends of civility, who needs enemies.

Those with whom I disagreed in my prior blog post think that any attempt to defend the use of “civility” considerations is either 1) a mask for those who are friends of Israel and the David project and/or an effort to chill dissent or 2) held by those who ignore the possible chilling effects of appeal to such considerations.

The first camp is represented by Ali Abunimah who titles his recent blog post, “Civility is the Israel lobby's new weapon against free speech on US Campuses.”

Corey Robin, whose views I respect, and with whom I had a very civil and informative debate on his blog, similarly claims “the call for civility is little more than an effort to muzzle critics, to turn vibrant campuses into intellectual morgues.”

Even if factually correct, and I will say something about that, it is a fallacy if designed to show that civility considerations should not play a role in academic decisions. Whatever the motivations of those who call for civility, the arguments for civility stand or fall on their cogency, not on the motives of those who put them forward. Note that this is not true for the constitutional issue since the question there is whether someone is being punished for the content of their beliefs, and the motives and intent of those who took punitive action are relevant to determining that.

Let me just say one thing about the factual issue. I have no doubt that Chancellor Wise was influenced to some extent– I cannot possibly read her mind to say how much– by the pressures of donors. But I recently discovered that she was the object of a vicious set of tweets by students on her campus. Here is part of the article that appeared in Inside Higher Education in January of this year:

Students (and plenty of professors) love snow days. But when they can't get what they want, is that any reason for a blizzard of hate on Twitter?

That is among the questions raised by the reaction at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign when Phyllis M. Wise, the chancellor, opted to keep classes as scheduled Monday, despite extremely cold weather. That some students would take to Twitter to gripe is not shocking. But a flurry of comments focused either on Wise's status as a woman, as an Asian-American, or both. The hashtag of choice: #fuckphyllis.

Among the tweets (skipping the most offensive) using the hashtag: “In room with Phyllis Wise, Adolf Hitler and a gun with one bullet. Who do I shoot.” Many tweets played off Wise's race. “Communist China no stop by cold,” for example.

Or “Asians and women aren't responsible for their actions,” or “Phyllis Wise is the Kim Jong Un of chancellors.” Many others referenced the female anatomy, or used additional hashtags, such as a vulgar four-letter word for a part of a woman's anatomy.

Here's the full story.

I find it significant that none of the many bloggers I have read, who attributed the most damning and corrupt motivations to her, mentioned this episode. As a matter of explanation, not justification, of her decision it seems to me quite plausible that it played a significant role.

Speaking of explanation, why did neither the Guardian story, nor the New York Times story on the case print the most controversial Salaita tweets– the West Bank settlers and shiv? In the latter case perhaps they were deemed not “fit to print.”

The second point above — those who wish to give some serious consideration to issues of civility on the campus underestimate or ignore the chilling effect of allowing them any role– is represented, also, by Corey Robin. Here is part of his response to my original blog post:

When you write “the university community,” I think — in this context of the debate over Israel/Palestine — not of faculty and students round a table, digging deep into Mill and other texts, but of university administrators, concerned about the bottom line of donors (I have some experience with this matter) and ever fearful to cross those donors or certain bright lines of controversy. To my mind, administrators are more like government officials, and though they don't have the power of those officials, much of my academic work is dedicated to the proposition that employment sanctions are among the most potent source of coercion in this country, particularly coercion of political belief. Like Shklar, and like the theoreticians of the First Amendment as it applies to government, I simply do not trust that the sorts of deliberations you have in mind, and the upholding of the ideals you speak of, can or should be put in the hands of administrators….It is for that reason, and really for that reason only, that I would wish to keep such discussions out of the university in their capacity as employers. Not because I don't think it's possible, in an ideal situation, to adjudicate what is and is not discrimination based on a viewpoint versus “slurs, obscenities, and threats” — though I would encourage you to examine the ever changing roster of reasons that have been cited by Salaita's critics, both inside and outside the academy; you'll see that the discussion has hardly settled upon slurs, obscenities, and threats (I also don't see any of Salaita's tweets as the issuance of a threat) — I have no reason to believe that political animals like university presidents and chancellors, who often have their eye on higher office or a position in the executive branch of government, would be willing to apply the strictures of pure reason in their efforts to make that distinction. As the Salaita case has revealed.

I take this argument seriously. It is an empirical issue of whether there would be, and how much, increased infringements upon faculty freedom to speak out boldly and passionately on all issues. I have appealed to such predictions of adverse consequences in my discussion of the scientific study of hereditary influences on IQ differences between racial groups. Block and Dworkin, “IQ: Heritability and Inequality” Part 2, Philosophy and Public Affairs, Fall, 1974.

I don't know what the consequences of focusing on civility considerations are likely to be. One piece of evidence that I believe goes against Robin's claim is what happened in the aftermath of the Koch firing at UIUC in 1960. (Is there something in the water in Urbana?) Koch was a pure case of viewpoint discrimination. He wrote a letter to the Daily Illini defending –wait for it, wait for it–premarital sex. He was fired by the President of the University on the grounds that the letter was “offensive and repugnant.” Both the Illinois Supreme Court and the US Supreme Court refused to hear the case. Having lived through that period I do not recall that this terrible decision–untouched by the courts– led to a rash of faculty dismissals or sanctions by administrators in other Universities. In fact, this case produced so much outrage that it may very well have discouraged administrators from future infringements. And, perhaps, the Salaita case will do so as well.

Of course, one case is only a tiny bit of evidence. Of course, the political context is very different now. Of course, universities are increasingly administered by people without an academic background. Of course, I am not a historian and perhaps there is a book out there which gives a different picture of the post-Koch era. All I am saying is that those who predict severe chilling, like those who predict the opposite, should be required to produce evidence of some kind for their claims.

My last point concerns one Corey Robin makes. In an ideal world he thinks it is “possible to make a distinction between discrimination based on a viewpoint versus slurs, obscenities, and threats” but in the real world he has “no reason to believe that political animals like university presidents and chancellors, who often have their eye on higher office or a position in the executive branch of government, would be willing to apply the strictures of pure reason in their efforts to make that distinction.” And he says earlier, “It is for that reason, and really for that reason only, that I would wish to keep such discussions out of the university in their capacity as employers.”

I have no real quarrel with this view. It relies on an empirical claim which, although I have doubts about it, may well be true. My quarrel is with those who do not think, in principle, that considerations of civility — showing respect for one's opponents, declining to use slurs, obscenities and threats– are important values, or an ideal to be approached as closely as the real world allows. In that world, Mario Savio would still be able to passionately denounce the administrators of his day, and in honor of FSM and Savio, I close with an excerpt from his speech on the steps of Sproul Hall:

We have an autocracy which runs this university. It's managed. We asked the following: if President Kerr actually tried to get something more liberal out of the Regents in his telephone conversation, why didn't he make some public statement to that effect? And the answer we received — from a well-meaning liberal — was the following: He said, “Would you ever imagine the manager of a firm making a statement publicly in opposition to his board of directors?” That's the answer! Now, I ask you to consider: if this is a firm, and if the Board of Regents are the board of directors, and if President Kerr in fact is the manager, then I'll tell you something: the faculty are a bunch of employees, and we're the raw material! But we're a bunch of raw material[s] that don't mean to have any process upon us, don't mean to be made into any product, don't mean to end up being bought by some clients of the University, be they the government, be they industry, be they organized labor, be they anyone! We're human beings!

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