University of Minnesota poised to adopt strong free-speech policy

An article in The Washington Post by Dale Carpenter, a law professor at the University of Minnesota (UM) specializing in Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, reports that a faculty committee at his university (Carpenter’s a member) has approved by a 7-2 vote a strong and virtually uncompromising free-speech policy.  Now this is just a committee vote, but it’s an important committee, and I expect its recommendations will be approved by UM.

I can’t help but think that the statement is modeled after the University of Chicago’s own policy, adopted in 2014 and also uncompromising.  The UM statement makes four points; each is longer than I reproduce but I’ll just list the main points with a few words of my own. First, though, the introduction:

University of Minnesota Board of Regents policy guarantees the freedom “to speak or write as a public citizen without institutional restraint or discipline.” The protection of free speech, like the related protection of academic freedom, is intended “to generate a setting in which free and vigorous inquiry is embraced in the pursuit of ‘the advancement of learning and the search for truth,’ in the words emblazoned on the front of Northrop Auditorium.” Ideas are the lifeblood of a free society and universities are its beating heart. If freedom of speech is undermined on a university campus, it is not safe anywhere. The University of Minnesota resolves that the freedom of speech is, and will always be, safe at this institution.

And the four “core principles”, with my short takes:

(1) A public university must be absolutely committed to protecting free speech, both for constitutional and academic reasons. . . . No member of the University community has the right to prevent or disrupt expression.

That means no disruptions like students interrupting Maryam Namazie’s talk at Goldsmiths University, or idiots pulling the fire alarm during a talk by Ben Shapiro at Cal State Los Angeles, trying to force him to stop speaking. Let’s hope UM actually does something to prevent these disruptions, which really are a form of censorship.

(2) Free speech includes protection for speech that some find offensive, uncivil, or even hateful. The University cherishes the many forms of its diversity, including diversity of opinion, which is one of its greatest strengths. At the same time, diversity of opinion means that students and others may hear ideas they strongly disagree with and find deeply offensive. Indeed, students at a well-functioning university should expect to encounter ideas that unsettle them. . .

Note that some protected speech can be deemed offensive and hateful, but is still protected anyway. This entire paragraph (see the document) is the best part of the policy, though it conflicts a bit with what comes later (see point 4). I was especially struck by the following bit, which really tells the Snowflakes to “get over it” and, if they want, battle speech that offends them with counter-speech:

The shock, hurt, and anger experienced by the targets of malevolent speech may undermine the maintenance of a campus climate that welcomes all and fosters equity and diversity. But at a public university, no word is so blasphemous or offensive it cannot be uttered; no belief is so sacred or widely held it cannot be criticized; no idea is so intolerant it cannot be tolerated. So long as the speech is constitutionally protected, and neither harasses nor threatens another person, it cannot be prohibited.

(3) Free speech cannot be regulated on the ground that some speakers are thought to have more power or more access to the mediums of speech than others.

This disposes handily of the widespread but misguided trope that it’s okay to “punch up” but not to “punch down.” It’s long struck me as irrational that bad ideas are immune from criticism if uttered by a class deemed “marginalized.”  The idea, for instance, that people of color can’t be racist is palpably ridiculous. (That doesn’t mean, of course, that we should ignore their own complaints about racism.)

The last point prioritizes speech over internecine harmony, an important point:

(4) Even when protecting free speech conflicts with other important University values, free speech must be paramount. As the classic Woodward Report on free speech at academic institutions concluded in 1974:

“Without sacrificing its central purpose, [a university] cannot make its primary and dominant value the fostering of friendship, solidarity, harmony, civility, or mutual respect. To be sure, these are important values; other institutions may properly assign them the highest, and not merely a subordinate priority; and a good university will seek and may in some significant measure attain these ends. But it will never let these values, important as they are, override its central purpose. We value freedom of expression precisely because it provides a forum for the new, the provocative, the disturbing, and the unorthodox.”

This is a strong stand for the University to take—if it adopts the speech code. It is aimed at students like the one who yelled at Nicholas Kristakis at Yale, “It is not about creating an intellectual space! It is not! Do you understand that? It’s about creating a home here!”.  Remember this video?

There’s one fly in the UM code, though. It’s this statement, also from point 4:

The University does not condone speech that is uncivil or hateful, and University officials should make this clear.

I’m not sure what that means, as it’s in direct conflict with statement 2, which notes that “Free speech includes protection for speech that some find offensive, uncivil, or even hateful.” Does this mean that the University won’t penalize it, but won’t condone it, either? That’s a contradiction, for “condone” means “tolerate” or “accept and allow.” After all, what some individuals find hateful or uncivil, like the case below, is seen  as reasoned criticism (or meaningful satire) by others. The University should simply deep-six the sentence above, which seems like a kind of sop to the “I’m-offended” crowd.

The Post article notes that the new policy is a reaction to earlier free-speech unrest at UM:

The move comes after several recent campus controversies over free speech–including two incidents where protestors attempted to shout down guest speakers (see here and here) and the investigation and recommended public censure of faculty members by the university’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action (OEOAA) for using an image of Mohammed from the cover of Charlie Hebdo magazine. Ironically, the image was used to promote a panel discussion on free speech and censorship after the terrorist massacre of the magazine’s writers and editors.

If you read the third link, you’ll go to the article about the Charlie Hebdo cover, which was used on a poster for an advertised campus forum on free speech. After that was put up, eight people filed complaints to the OEOAA and 300 people (including 260 Muslim students) signed a petition calling the poster “very offensive”, adding “Knowing that these caricatures hurt and are condemned by 1.75 billion Muslims in the world, the University should not have re-circulated/re-produced them.” The petition called for UM to stop this “Islamophobia”. Finally, the director of the OEOAA, Kimberley Hewitt, backed the petition, saying, “There are limits on free speech, and that would be where you have harassment of an individual based on their identity.” She added, “We got complaints from eight individuals and a petition from 300 people saying that they felt that this was insulting, disparaging to their faith.”

The OEOAA’s investigation of the matter concluded that the flyer did not violate University policy, but the office kvetched anyway:

But it also found that, because many people found the poster “personally offensive and hurtful,” it had contributed to an “atmosphere of disrespect towards Muslims at the University.” In a letter to Coleman, Hewitt recommended that he “communicate that [the College of Liberal Arts] does not support the flier’s image of the Charlie Hebdo depiction of Muhammad.”

The University first caved, demanding that the posters be removed, but then reversed its position. This is what surely launched the committee’s work, which concluded (point 4 above) that free speech trumps an atmosphere of civility and “mutual respect.”

But let’s look at the image that offended so many Muslims at UM. You’ll remember this Charlie Hebdo cover (“All is forgiven” with the Muslim, probably Mohammed, holding a card saying “I am Charlie”—the motto of so many who stood in solidarity with the murdered):

imrs-1

While I suppose this cartoon can support diverse interpretations, the most obvious is that the Prophet is shedding tears over the violence committed in his name, and is also standing in solidarity with the victims. Now is that “offensive and hurtful”? Perhaps to those who see any depiction of the Prophet as offensive, but surely not to those who maintain vociferously that Islam is a “religion of peace.” Once again, the kneejerk reaction to a cartoon, without any understanding of what it meant, continues to breed unrest.

27 Comments

  1. GBJames
    Posted March 14, 2016 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    sub

  2. Sastra
    Posted March 14, 2016 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    She added, “We got complaints from eight individuals and a petition from 300 people saying that they felt that this was insulting, disparaging to their faith.”

    This is why it needs to be hammered home, over and over, that faith and religion are not immutable identities. And identities are not immutable.

    If someone “insults America” the reaction should be to examine and discuss whether or not the specific complaint is justified, not send around petitions complaining about feeling that one’s country has been disparaged and wailing that nobody should ever do that. Those who signed this petition would probably agree. Religion consists of beliefs and beliefs are not sacred.

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted March 14, 2016 at 11:10 am | Permalink

      Yes. One of my biggest bugbears is the way religious belief/identity is given precedence in the minds of so many over other forms of belief/identity.

      This manifests in so many ways. One that comes to mind is the Hobby Lobby decision. Few would have had any sympathy if the “closely held belief” was white supremacy, for example.

      It should matter whether a belief has any proof to back it up.

  3. Simon Hayward
    Posted March 14, 2016 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    Re the point 2 vs point 4 issue.
    The University can protect a point of view that it does not condone. Sounds a little like lawyerspeak – gives them an out if anyone suggests that they are condoning a position simply by protecting it.

    • Posted March 14, 2016 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

      Yeah that’s how it sounded to me as well.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted March 14, 2016 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

      Yeah, a better word choice might have been “endorse,” but they seemed to split the difference between that and “tolerate” by opting for “condone.”

      I don’t read it as a Trojan horse dropped into point 4 to leave a backdoor for the school to sanction unpopular speech.

  4. Posted March 14, 2016 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    University of Minnesota (my Alma Mater) President Eric Kaler recently (a few days or a weekish ago) made the following statements in the “State of the U” speech:

    On speech, there can be no compromise. I understand the FCC is actively debating these issues, and I welcome that.

    Our Board of Regents policy guarantees the freedom “to speak or write as a public citizen without institutional restraint or discipline.”

    I am opposed to hate speech of any kind.

    While the University encourages all members of the community to speak with respect and understanding of others, we should not forbid speech that shocks, hurts or angers. We must not tolerate the shouting down of points of view, as we’ve seen in our community in recent months. As our Law School Professor Dale Carpenter, who is a national thought leader on this topic, has told me: “The best response to offensive ideas is to counter them with better ideas.”

    I urge us all to consider other points of view, to allow even our most disliked opponents to speak, and then for us to counter their words with even more eloquent and effective messages. If there is any space in our society for that, it is this space we call the University.

    I appreciated this strong endorsement of (essentially) absolutely free speech on campus.

    • Posted March 14, 2016 at 11:59 am | Permalink

      I appreciated this strong endorsement of (essentially) absolutely free speech on campus.

      Except for this now-obligatory phrase: “I am opposed to hate speech of any kind.”

      I’m coming to the view that the phrase “hate speech” is a weasely one, and that we need to abandon the whole concept of “hate speech” as too broad and too undefined to be useful.

      • Posted March 14, 2016 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

        I think it’s used here as a disclaimer of agreeing with any supposed “hate speech”. I think what follows is clearly in favor of letting people say their piece, even if people are offended by it.

        I agree that “hate speech” has become a meaningless phrase.

      • Denise
        Posted March 14, 2016 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

        Especially now that people are called “haters” for expressing negative views about just about anything.

  5. rickflick
    Posted March 14, 2016 at 10:57 am | Permalink

    With the minor quibbles mentioned, I think the statement is a nice advance for campus policy and free society in general. Let’s hope more Colleges and Universities follow suit.

  6. Jay
    Posted March 14, 2016 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    Interesting development in Missouri

    http://www.investors.com/politics/editorials/a-message-for-higher-ed-from-mizzous-1500-missing-students/

    • Mark R.
      Posted March 14, 2016 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for the link. Money talks so hopefully University of Missouri and other Universities will listen. Can’t say I feel bad for the University though; I’m encouraged that so many students understood that what happened on campus last year was antithetical to higher education.

  7. Posted March 14, 2016 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    I have emailed Prof Carpenter to ask him how I can provide support for this proposed code.

    • Posted March 14, 2016 at 11:09 am | Permalink

      He’s out of office until May — I hope he replies anyway.

    • Posted March 14, 2016 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

      He did reply and recommends brief (and respectful) comments to President Kaler and Provost Karen Hanson.

    • Posted March 14, 2016 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

      I wrote as follows:

      Dear President Kaler and Provost Hanson,

      I am writing to you to express my strong support for the free speech code proposed to the University and outlined in the Washington Post article by Prof. Dale Carpenter on 11-Mar-2016.

      I also want to express my appreciation, President Kaler, for your recent State of the University speech in which you made a strong defense of free speech on the U campus.

      I feel that speech should always be free except in some very extraordinary circumstances. These are and should be very rare. If any place is meant to be a marketplace of ideas, where none should be censored, it is a public university.

      As you (President Kaler) said in your address: “I urge us all to consider other points of view, to allow even our most disliked opponents to speak, and then for us to counter their words with even more eloquent and effective messages. If there is any space in our society for that, it is this space we call the University.”

      I fully agree. Thank you,

      • Posted March 15, 2016 at 7:33 am | Permalink

        I received a reply from Provost Karen Hanson:

        Dear Mr. Blilie,

        Thank you very much for your note and your expression of support. We agree: freedom of speech and freedom of thought and inquiry are central to the functioning of the university and, indeed, to a free society. Such freedom continues to be cherished at this university as a bedrock value.

        Sincerely,
        Karen Hanson

        • Diane G.
          Posted March 21, 2016 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

          Nice job!

  8. Scientifik
    Posted March 14, 2016 at 11:42 am | Permalink

    “While I suppose this cartoon can support diverse interpretations, the most obvious is that the Prophet is shedding tears over the violence committed in his name, and is also standing in solidarity with the victims.”

    But why would the main cover text state: tout est pardonne (all is forgiven)? Could it have been a jibe at the pusillanimous response of the French government to the unceasing Muslim terrorist attacks?

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted March 15, 2016 at 6:51 am | Permalink

      I read the cover as Charlie Hebdo forgiving its Muslim attackers at the same time other Muslims were standing in solidarity with Charlie (with Mohammed serving as reification for Muslims of both groups) — a sort of mutual reckoning, a clearing of the slate.

      Others’ mileage may vary on this, of course.

    • Filippo
      Posted March 15, 2016 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

      I’ve no reasonable doubt that that is a cartoon of Mohammed, that that is what Charlie Hebdo intended. But push come to shove, how does a reader/viewer KNOW that it is Mohammed? Did Charlie Hebdo confirm that in writing? Who knows what Mohammed looked like?

      What if Charlie Hebdo published a cartoon of some generic contemporary mullah? Do we meaningfully know what Mohammed looked like that one can look at a cartoon and say without the least doubt, “Hey, that’s (not) Mo!”? Is it that offended Islamofascists take the default position that any such cartoon of a mullah MUST be Mohammed?

  9. Posted March 14, 2016 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  10. Ken Kukec
    Posted March 14, 2016 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

    Bravo, Golden Gophers’ faculty committee, Bravo.

    Passages of the committee’s free-speech statement read like they’re out of the 18th or 19th centuries, down to the series of independent clauses set off by semicolons, recalling the Declaration of Independence, or Jefferson’s other writings, or even those of Tom Paine.

  11. Hempenstein
    Posted March 15, 2016 at 12:24 am | Permalink

    Note to snowflakes: pay attention – MN is an expert on snowflakes.

    • Posted March 15, 2016 at 7:45 am | Permalink

      🙂

      Though we have plenty of them here (the human kind).

      Recently the U of Minn. police (!!) changed policy for reporting criminal activity: They stopped reporting the race of suspects (ones that they are asking the public for with help finding)! I about fell over when I heard that one!

      I guess they shouldn’t report the suspect’s age either (ageism!) or their sex (sexism!) or their size (sizeism!) or hair color or eye color (racism!)

  12. Posted March 16, 2016 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

    Be careful. (PLEASE view the YouTube link at end of this post)

    Some people will use stopping “hate speech” as a good excuse to destroy “free speech”.

    As soon as you give SOME people “power”, like an organized campaign, then SOME people will corrupt it. My life was ruined by SOME with what they believed were “good intentions”.

    Politically powerful 3rd Wave Feminist organizations have attacked me and others and ruined our lives.

    Few understand what happened to me, because a well-connected group of Canadian Activists/Politicians/Police/Media/PublicServants who wanted to silence my political observations and opinions “sicced the internet” (their words) on me; They attacked me immediately after I had tried to stop them from “siccing the internet” on another person. I went to jail for 3 days, was BANNED FROM USING THE INTERNET FOR OVER 3 YEARS, lost my well-paying job of 15 years, was financially destroyed, had my personal ‘brand’ destroyed… it was all orchestrated. By people who preached “safety”. In reality, it was our Public Sector and the sectors who rely on them for money/jobs/power protecting and/or creating jobs for their friends and families.

    Corruption?

    PLEASE spend 14 minutes viewing the YouTube video (link in next paragraph below) by a very smart Canadian investigative woman journalist. She can save you from having to read my Judge’s 85 page “Freedom of Speech Online” decision, released on January 22, 2016 in Toronto. Activists/Politicians/Police/Media/PublicServants can, and have destroyed lives.

    Feminist Bullies Don’t Understand the Internet https://youtu.be/BJU7-aETZGM via @YouTube

    P.S.Here’s the Judge’s FREEDOM OF SPEECH Decision regarding my Twitter Trial:

    https://www.canlii.org/en/on/oncj/doc/2016/2016oncj35/2016oncj35.html?autocompleteStr=R.%20v.%20Elliott%2C%202016%20ONCJ%203&autocompletePos=1


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