The Right Coast

February 04, 2005
Academics and free speech
By Tom Smith

If instapundit is any indication, opinion in the blogosphere is running toward the view that Ward Churchill is an moral idiot, but he has the right to say whatever is on his none too impressive mind. Even though I realize I take advantage of my free speech rights on this entirely private blog, affiliated in no way with the University I am happy to be employed by, I just want to dissent and say, I don't see what the problem is with firing the guy. Of course, he may have some contractual right not to be fired for saying extremely stupid things. That's another matter. Moreover, I would not be shocked to learn there is some constitutional principle, created in 1973 or whatever, that no professor may be fired for displaying a complete lack of mental competence. Nothing the Supreme Court does can surprize me at this point. I speak merely of the high policy of the thing.

Some professors have gotten this idea that as professors they are entitled to hold opinions and express them publicly, no matter how much discredit that brings to their employer, its affilitated institutions, or their species. I find the view baffling. If the President of Proctor and Gamble expressed the view that Americans are an obsessively clean people and that body odor is in fact sexy, no one would contest his right to hold that view. In fact, many French people seem to hold that view. But the Board of Directors of America's most important soap company would be right to fire him. It should not be that different with universities.

Obviously, academics need a wide range of freedom so that they can push the boundaries of knowledge. But that doesn't mean that there is no voiced opinion, no matter how odious, that counts as good cause to can some dimwitted academic. This is certainly the case with private institutions. But it ought to be the case with public institutions as well. If academic freedom had some reasonable definition, perhaps universities would be less the font of so many wacky and destructive ideas, and more productive of actually useful knowledge. Indeed, by giving vent to his offensive and silly ideas and getting fired for it, Professor Churchill would probably make a greater contribution to academic life in this country than anyone had reason to expect he ever could. They also serve who are merely made examples of.

In my simple-minded view, tenure and academic freedom are just contract terms. To the extent they are not well defined, you fill them in with some sort of reasonableness standard. There are opinions you have a constitutional right to hold and express as a citizen, that should still get you in trouble or even fired, for violating your duties as an employee of an institution, even ones at which we get to wear gowns and funny hats. If this means there are all kinds of obnoxious, half-baked, pernicious and silly views various professors in the academic demi-monde will become hestiant to express, that's what we economics types call "a positive externality." Sort of, let a thousand nasty weeds perish, to paraphrase that genocidal Chinese guy. Do Professor Churchill's statements sink to that level? I don't know, because I haven't studied them, and don't intend to. That is a thankless task for the worthies at UC Boulder, who must pay for the sin of hiring this guy in the first place. Fortunately, I do not have that kind of time to waste, and if I did, I would use it to maybe read a Conan the Barbarian novel, which I have never done, but which I am sure would be more fun and educational than exposing myself to Churchill's ravings.

AND HERE'S some sensible moderation from Eugene Volokh. I think his reasoning is fallacious. You can have a policy that protects professors who say bold things most of their colleagues disagree with, and still boot people who say sufficiently evil or obnoxious things. Moreover, as Posner's post referred to above suggests, if academic freedom is supposed to promote the bold expression of dissenting views, it has been an abject failure. A more inhibited environment, as far as expressing views out of the mainstream, could hardly be found. People in normal lines of work are much freer to express their views than the average professor. In terms of freedom to express, oh let's say the views of your average conservative Republican, the UC system should probably get a freedom grade of about a D or maybe a C minus. (I have only felt physically uncomfortable, i.e. not sure I was completely safe, as a professor, twice, once from a student at USD who had suffered a head injury, and once at a UC law school, not UCLA, when my speech had run afoul the gay students' association, and they sent a couple of scary ambassadors to counsel me in my office. Let's just say they could have moonlighted as guards in a movie about women in concentration camps.) I suspect that a kind of bad speech drives out good speech phenonmenon is part of the explanation. If you could be booted out (student or professor) for screaming obscenities at somebody espousing (for the whole country) majoritarian views, maybe speech on campus would be more diverse. To try to be clear, the idea that protecting Ward Churchill's right to call the dead of 9/11 little Nazis, makes conservatives on campus a little more secure, is baloney. It's like saying because the police can't arrest the armed robber who lives on my block because they didn't quite have probable cause that time they stopped him walking away from a victim, I am safer in my house, because the police aren't going to break in and arrest me in the middle of the night. That's nice, but I was more worried about getting mugged.