FIRE, Purdue Defend Rights of Conservative Faculty Blogger Amidst Calls for Dismissal

By on November 12, 2009

A controversial blog post by a conservative faculty blogger at Purdue University has had some members of the Purdue community calling for him to be disciplined or dismissed from Purdue. Fortunately, the Purdue administration isn’t among them.

Bert Chapman, a tenured professor and Purdue’s government information and political science librarian, also posts on a blog named "Conservative Librarian" at Townhall.com. On October 27, Chapman posted an entry entitled "An Economic Case Against Homosexuality" which, as the Indianapolis Star summarizes, "laid out an argument that the cost for AIDS research and treatment should factor into the national debate over the acceptance of gays and lesbians," and made other statements and arguments reflecting his opinions and his religious views about homosexuality.

Chapman’s entry provoked not only vigorous debate within the Purdue community, which is one of the things that universities usually promote, but also calls for punishment. Numerous angry letters from students have appeared in The Exponent, Purdue’s daily student newspaper, with some people calling for his summary dismissalwhich would violate Chapman’s rights that Purdue, a public university bound by the First Amendment and its own promises of free speech, is obligated to uphold.

Nevertheless, some students are signing a petition against Chapman, led by student Kevin Casimer. Casimer told the Star that "the most concrete way to protect the university’s reputation against academic dishonesty and mediocrity is for him to resign." Casimer added that "if Purdue administrators and faculty make a unified statement that (Chapman’s writings) are unprofessional and detrimental to Purdue’s reputation and not reflective of the university, the same effect might be made."

Purdue is free to do the lattereven though it may well have a detrimental chilling effect on the facultybut may not punish him or pressure him to resign because of the exercise of his rights, as FIRE’s Adam Kissel told the Star, noting that "Purdue’s obligation, as a public university, is to defend its faculty members’ freedom of speech and academic freedom."

Fortunately, Purdue’s administration has needed no reminder on this point, having reiterated a point that FIRE has made countless times over the years: that the best antidote to offensive speech is more speech, not less:

"There are many things on the Internet that would be offensive to a lot of people but protected by the First Amendment," said Purdue spokeswoman Jeanne Norberg. "The best response is to speak up, which is exactly what our students and some faculty are doing."

Yvonne Pitts, an openly gay professor at Purdue who specializes in constitutional history, has also stood out as an admirable voice of reason amidst calls for punishment. As the Journal & Courier relates:

"We must have a free trade in ideas in order for democracy to work," she said.

[...]

"I would be disturbed if he lost his job because I would fear that my job could be in jeopardy for my activism," she said. "It is really good for student[s] to be having this debate. But you can’t call for his job.

"And I totally disagree with everything he wrote."

Ideally, we shouldn’t have to feel refreshed when universities remember their First Amendment obligations and when faculty members stand up for one another’s rights even when they vigorously disagree. Nonetheless, FIRE is glad to see Purdue’s administration encouraging debate rather than punishing a professor’s expressions of opinion and belief.

Schools: Purdue University