Dear President Speert:I write with regard to the bizarre actions of William Paterson University, endorsed and defended by you, as it seems, in its attempt to punish Mr. J. Daniel for his response to an unsolicited email message from Prof. A. H. Scala of your faculty. I use the word “attempt” advisedly, since few fair-minded people with a decent regard for freedom of speech and opinion will see your official reprimand as anything but a suicidal confession of your institution’s own hysteria and stupidity.The facts of the case seem refreshingly simple and straightforward. Mr. Daniel was one addressee of a mass mailing from Prof. Scala publicizing a film she was about to show, a documentary that presented a positive view of lesbian relationships. Mr. Daniel, who espouses religious doctrines deploring homosexuality, responded with a request not to be sent similar notices in the future, along with a few brief sentences summarizing his general views. It is notable that he did not threaten Prof. Scala directly or by implication, nor did he deny her right to show the film. He did not publicize the exchange. He did not use the incident to launch a campaign of ridicule or vilification against homosexuals or anyone else. He merely counterposed his ideas to those she was presumably promoting, in a purely private way and in response to an unsolicited message directed to him. The matter should simply have ended there and then.
Prof. Scala, however, seems to regard disagreement with her position as a punishable offense. In this respect, she has embraced peculiar dogmas that have become all too prevalent on campuses throughout the nation. These hold that there are certain groups who, by reason of a presumed history of oppression, are to be safeguarded from opinions that they find distressing or uncomfortable. The rights of others to hold, or at least to express, such dissonant views are supposedly nullified by the new-minted “right” of the protected groups to be shielded from discomfort and distress. Both the ethic of free speech and the constitutional guarantees that bolster it are supposedly trumped by the duty to shield the tender sensibilities of the officially recognized victim class. If, by chance, someone utters a sentence or two, even in the context of private discussion, that affronts these sensibilities, terms like “harassment” and “hostile environment” are immediately trotted out to justify retribution against the offending speaker. In short, the assumption is that colleges and universities have both the right and the positive duty to require students, faculty, and employees to uphold official doctrine on these matters, if only by silencing themselves if they happen to disagree.This is a strange principle indeed for academic institutions to embrace. Presumably, colleges and universities are committed to the idea that the campus is a place where all sorts of views are not only expressed, but clash and contend, sometimes with a great deal of passion or even acrimony. We treasure academic life precisely because of its power to create a “hostile environment,” that is to say, to confront us, often aggressively, with ideas that we may instinctively regard as distasteful and unwholesome. It is sad enough that certain fervent political factions reject this point of view when they are unsettled by vigorous disagreement or criticism. But it is even more horrifying to see university officials and administrators rushing to placate these factions in defiance of fairness, law, and constitutional precepts. On the evidence of hundreds of incidents, one can only conclude that administrations have been seduced by the dual fallacies that the way to avoid embarrassing brouhahas is shamelessly to mollify groups claiming special protection and that a suitable way to mollify them is to trample the rights of whoever supposedly annoys them.Mr. Daniel has clearly found WPU to be “hostile” in the sense that his notions of sexual morality and its roots in divine fiat are not generally embraced by his fellow students and employees. Apparently, he accepts the situation, since he has remained at your school for many years, but that does not nullify his own right to dissent emphatically. His right to express his disapproval of homosexuality is on the same level, and therefore as immune to censorship, as Prof. Scala’s right to campaign for the dignity of homosexuals. It is not for the university as an institution to rule Mr. Daniel’s views out of bounds for purposes of public discussion. Still less is the university justified in issuing reprimands in response to Mr. Daniel’s statements in a private exchange, no matter how much his ideas may have annoyed Prof. Scala. Frankly, when Prof. Scala approached university authorities to enroll them in a vendetta against Mr. Daniel, she should have been bluntly told to get used to the fact that the world is full of people who disagree with her quite vehemently. That is, she should have been told to grow up and start acting like a real professor.But alas, universities seem to have lost the intellectual coherence and the moral gumption that is required to oppose the censoriousness represented, in this instance, by Prof. Scala’s demands. Instead, they easily slide down what they have come to think of as the path of least resistance, soothing crybabies at the expense of someone else’s rights and with little honest regard for intellectual and expressive freedom. This is not only thoughtless, lazy, and unjust. It has further consequences that Prof. Scala may find bitter indeed. The current imbroglio—sure to be widely publicized as a case where religious views, in particular, have been brutally censored—is exactly the kind of case that many, many people, whose views on sexuality echo those of Mr. Daniel, perceive as an excellent opportunity to attack academic culture as it now exists with a view to replacing it by an ethos much more in line with “traditional values.” They would greatly prefer universities where current polarities are reversed, where views like Mr. Daniel’s are the sacred norm and those like Prof. Scala’s are subject to summary repression. By making a martyr of Mr. Daniel, you are creating the kind of leverage that will aid them enormously. By endorsing the principle that some views are to be punished, free speech be damned, because they offend the wrong folks, you are gutting the values that are vital to mounting a defense against people who are considerably more intolerant and dangerous than Mr. Daniel. Your actions, therefore, have not only been deplorably unprincipled, but highly imprudent in point of the values you were presumably so eager to defend.Norman Levitt
Professor of Mathematics
Rutgers, New Brunswick
Schools: William Paterson University