Published April 19, 2013
Dialogue Is Everything
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Universities should not censor their employees.
Ethan Thornton

University of Rochester Professor Steven Landsburg does not condone any sort of rape or sexual crime. Many uninformed individuals have misinterpreted his March 20 post “Censorship, Environmentalism and Steubenville” as debating the illegality of rape or worse, promoting the rape of unconscious individuals. He said in an April 3 blog post, “It is settled that damage to rape victims is real, great, important, and deserves the attention of the law.” Landsburg’s March 20 post raised three hypothetical questions to generate dialogue about what should be legal and why.

Landsburg’s March 20 blog post does not conflict with any ethical standards that I know of. Neither did he encroach on any standard of the University of Rochester, written or implied. For this reason, University President Joel Seligman has opted to preserve Landsburg’s freedom of speech, as well as his professorship.

But Seligman also seems to have missed the point of Landsburg’s post. In Seligman’s April 3 conference “Remarks at ‘Confronting Sexual Assault on Campus’ Conference,” he stated that, “At our University, we work hard to balance our commitment to provide a safe campus, one as free as is reasonably possible from a hostile work environment and discrimination and harassment, with our commitment to academic freedom.” Seligman seems to be mischaracterizing Landsburg’s remarks as hostile, although they are anything but.

Rather, Landsburg was attempting to start interesting dialogue with his blog post. In his own post on April 3, Landsburg describes his March 20 blog as, “more idle noodling than anything else, with no good arguments and no conclusions; the whole point is that I can’t seem to figure out what the good arguments are on this subject, and I was hoping for a little help from my readers.” He mentions that anyone who claims to disagree with anything in his March 20 post is misreading his post, because he is not making any assertions, only raising questions. He points them to explore the archives of his blog to find controversial assertions he made in the past.

Seligman is one of the individuals misreading Landsburg’s post. During his April 3 conference Seligman said, “No one who has known an individual who has suffered rape or sexual assault can ever view such crimes as hypothetical questions.” Seligman seems to have been swept up by the witch-hunt, to some extent. Fortunately, he was wise enough to champion free speech, despite any feelings that Landsburg is tarnishing the image of the University.

So to Seligman I say, thank you for preserving free speech, and never let aspirations towards an untarnished, conflict-free institution persuade you to create a dialogue-free institution. Allow the principles of free speech alone to guide your policy decisions, because free and open dialogue is the only machine for good ideas rise to the surface and bad ideas to be debated until they are dismissed.

I cannot imagine a case where it would be acceptable for an academic institution to place its image above its academic dialogue. While it is certainly true that employers are legally allowed to set standards for employees, no reasonable standard would limit the kind of speech that Landsburg participates in with his blog. If individuals at the University of Rochester or from the general public disagree with Landsburg, they should engage in an informed, rational discourse with him rather than immediately call for his censorship or firing.

One can’t help but notice that Landsburg has not apologized for any of his comments though he has certainly been given the opportunity. He has only clarified his point. Unfortunately, the straw man attacks against his supposed position on legalizing rape have distracted from his original questions regarding our justification for law making. He was challenging peoples’ thinking, and this is a sign of a true academic. I should hope that, in the future, the University of Rochester actively promotes this academic discussion, rather than reluctantly allowing it.

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