Marquette University Threatens Academic Freedom with Chilling Investigation of Classroom Speech

By December 29, 2011

Over at the blog Marquette Warrior, John McAdams provides a good example of how unwarranted investigations of campus speech can cause a deeply problematic "chilling effect" at a university. Universities must not pursue investigations of protected expression just because someone submits a complaint; as soon as it is clear that the expression in question is protected speech, the inquiry must end, even if there are other factual disputes. Prolonging the investigation tells everyone on campus that the university will pursue charges against you no matter how frivolous or malicious the complaint. The likely result is that people self-censor and keep their mouths shut rather than risk such investigation and a possible punishment.

It seems that Marquette University, where McAdams is a professor, made just such a mistake this month. According to McAdams, his introductory course in American politics discusses alleged media bias and takes an anti-feminist perspective:

Ambiguous sexual encounters, often fueled by alcohol, are defined as "rape" by feminist researchers, but not defined that way by purported victims.

We point out that feminists insist that if a women consents to sex under the influence of alcohol, she has been raped. [...] Often, some guy who hasn’t yet learned that, in academia, he’s not supposed to question any feminist claim, will raise his hand in our class and ask "suppose the guy has been drinking too? Why didn’t she rape him?"

We always respond, sarcastically "you’ve got to look at this from the feminist point of view. Males are the oppressor class, and women the victim class. So of course the guy is responsible."

We typically add "if you wake up in the morning and ask ‘what in the world did I do?’ you haven’t been raped. If you’ve been raped you feel violated. If it requires a feminist political activist to explain to you how what happened was rape, you weren’t raped."

In response, someone complained using the "Ethics Point" hot line Marquette had set up for people to privately report illegal financial activity (which this classroom discussion certainly was not). The complaint (as reported by McAdams) was that the material in class was "demeaning to rape victims" and that "rape is a serious problem on campus, and thus we [in the course] were engaging in ‘harassment based on gender.’"

Marquette has no basis, consistent with free speech and academic freedom, to punish anyone for making a vigorous argument in class, even if some perceived that argument as "demeaning to rape victims." Nevertheless, Provost John Pauly directed McAdams’ department chair to pursue the investigation. McAdams writes:

Faculty have a right to disagree with any political movement – including feminists. And social science faculty have a right to debunk bogus social science statistics. … [T]he complaint should have been dismissed immediately. Taking the complaint absolutely at face value, we did nothing but disagree with feminist claims about date rape, something clearly protected by the canons of academic freedom.

That’s quite right. Marquette, like most private universities, promises students and faculty members that it is the kind of university that supports free speech and academic freedom. Marquette’s Student Handbook, for instance, notes:

It is clearly inevitable, and indeed essential, that the spirit of inquiry and challenge that the university seeks to encourage will produce many conflicts of ideas, opinions and proposals for action.

Yet by pursuing this investigation, Marquette is letting a single student entangle a professor in disciplinary proceedings simply due to protected classroom expression. How many professors at Marquette are now going to steer clear of sensitive topics just to avoid an Ethics Point investigation?

Marquette has had free speech failings in the past, too, such as when it required a graduate student to remove no less than a humorous Dave Barry quote from his office door: "As Americans we must always remember that we all have a common enemy, an enemy that is dangerous, powerful, and relentless. I refer, of course, to the federal government." At Marquette, this language was deemed so "patently offensive" that it could not be posted on the door. (Here’s Dave Barry himself speaking about it in a FIRE video.)

Once again, it seems that Marquette draws the line at offensiveness in a way completely at odds with what academic freedom and free speech should and do permit.

Schools: Marquette University