Letter to the Editor: Academia should support free speech

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Alanna Herrera

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NMSU remembers 9/11
September 11, 2019
NMSU Courtesy Photo

NMSU Courtesy Photo

I vigorously disapprove of my Department of Government colleague Professor Gregory Butler’s offensive social media postings that have recently been reported in the Round Up, and which are currently under official scrutiny by the Office of Institutional Equity. However, regardless of how reprehensible I may find Dr. Butler’s past tweets, I have no choice as a card-carrying liberal—indeed, a card-carrying member of the American Civil Liberties Union—but to unambiguously support his First Amendment rights, as well as the related principle of academic freedom. 

Another Government Department colleague of mine, Professor Christa Slaton, neatly poses the crucial question at the heart of this matter: “If you’re going to criticize professors for expressing their political views, are you going to go after liberals as much as you are conservatives?” Moreover, we must always be concerned over the potentially boundless censoriousness of critics on both the right and left who would seek to curtail speech they find offensive—as Juvenal asked two millennia ago (admittedly in the midst of a misogynistic rant), “Who watches the watchmen?”

Let me be clear that I am not seeking to provide any manner of moral cover for Dr. Butler, for whose social media-expressed sentiments I have nothing but revulsion. However, I believe that it is the solemn duty of the Academy to be an exemplar and bulwark when it comes to the protection of speech—all speech shy of legally proscribed incitement to violence, authentic death threats, and “fighting words.”

US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis opined in the case Whitney v. California (1927), “To justify suppression of free speech, there must be reasonable ground to fear that serious evil will result if free speech is practiced. There must be reasonable ground to believe that the danger apprehended is imminent. There must be reasonable ground to believe that the evil to be prevented is a serious one.” Shy of this deliberately high bar, Brandeis asserted, “the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.” 

In the current situation, this means that students, faculty, and staff have a commensurate right to vigorously protest Dr. Butler’s offensive speech both face-to-face and via such activities as e.g. public protest and opprobrious articles, all without fear of professorial retribution. 

Most fundamentally, as ACLU attorney Lee Rowland reminds us, “Our history shows the same First Amendment that protects hateful, racist speech can be and has been used by civil rights advocates to protect historically vulnerable communities.” Hence we put our thumb on the scale of justice against rhetorical malefactors at our own peril.

If it is definitively established that Professor Butler has acted in a discriminatory manner or otherwise caused one or more of his students mensurable harm in the execution of his professional responsibilities, then appropriate remedies should be rigorously applied. 

But shy of such a finding, we within the Academy—faculty, students, and staff alike—are, in my view, ethically obliged to voice our unwavering support for Gregory Butler’s free speech rights and immunity from punitive administrative actions that would threaten his professorial position, while fully reserving our right to censure him privately and publicly in a manner that clearly expresses our condemnation of his odious views. 

 

Sincerely, Neal R.

Neal M. Rosendorf, Ph.D.

Associate Professor of International Relations

M.A. Program Chair

Department of Government

New Mexico State University

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