Purdue Offers Admirable Lessons in Liberty, Despite Having a Speech Code

By on November 13, 2009

Yesterday, Peter pointed out Purdue University’s admirable defense of the rights of a faculty member who published a controversial "Economic Case Against Homosexuality" on his personal blog at Townhall.com, fully within Purdue’s policy on such publications. Some students have called on Purdue to punish the professor, but Purdue appears to have turned the controversy into a valuable lesson on responding to free speech in a free society. As Peter noted yesterday, Purdue spokeswoman Jeanne Norberg rightly said that "[t]here are many things on the Internet that would be offensive to a lot of people but protected by the First Amendment," and that "[t]he best response is to speak up, which is exactly what our students and some faculty are doing."

Among the local and national attention to the issue is this wonderful opinion piece from today’s Journal & Courier:

Embracing principles of free speech and freedom of religion requires tolerance because someone will eventually say, write or do something objectionable.

Many on the Purdue University campus are learning that lesson.

[...]

It’s the second time this semester that Purdue has found itself in the First Amendment spotlight.

In September, 1970s radical Bill Ayers lectured on education reform. Because of his violent challenges to the Vietnam War, protesters from politically right-leaning groups opposed Ayers’ visit to campus but Purdue officials permitted Ayers’ lecture.

Now a faculty member has expressed personal and religious convictions that are offensive to some, and Purdue again steers a neutral path — despite calls from the political left for Chapman’s job.

[...]

The First Amendment lesson from Ayers’ lecture and Chapman’s blog is that people’s words — and sometimes their causes — can evoke strong disagreements. Such disagreement should give rise to debate and discussion. Not reprisals.

FIRE has been saying lately that more and more students seem to be "unlearning liberty," especially when professors and administrators and their speech codes suggest that the right and moral thing to do is to respond to feelings of offense with censorship and punishment. But Purdue is teaching liberty in practice (despite Purdue’s unconstitutional speech code in its e-mail policy). One Purdue student who quickly "learned liberty" is junior Max Vande Vaarst. On Tuesday, his letter to campus paper The Exponent stated that the professor "surrendered his position at Purdue the moment he decided to publish such intellectual diarrhea on his blog" and called the professor an "atrocious man" and "a liar."

In a letter published yesterday, however, he wrote again to "apologize," emphasizing the professor’s free speech while also criticizing that speech:

[... Senior] Lydia Williams and [Professor] Yvonne Pitt are correct in their defense of [Professor Bert] Chapman’s right to speech, and I admit that I was writing in anger when I sent my first letter.

It would be wrong to fire a man for his beliefs, regardless of how hateful, disgusting or, frankly, evil they may be. I hope that somehow this experience has at least led Dr. Chapman to re-evaluate the way he thinks about some of his fellow citizens, and take the time to learn the facts about AIDS and prison rape, not to mention homosexuality in general. [...]

Now, what about Purdue’s unconstitutional speech code? Purdue’s Information Technology Electronic Mail Policy (V.3.1) (PDF) states that it is "improper" to use "e-mail that degrades or demeans other individuals" (a punishable offense). Let’s say for the sake of argument that Max Vande Vaarst used his Purdue e-mail account when he called the professor an "atrocious man." Should this student be punished or even investigated for degrading the professor because of the professor’s views? Of course not–even if the student never apologized. This is a good example of how such a vague policy bans a wide swath of vigorous, engaged speech that Purdue should be encouraging instead of restricting.

Purdue has been doing so well on free speech lately that perhaps now is the time to correct its policy and get out from under FIRE’s "red light" rating. Let me recommend FIRE’s new guide to Correcting Common Mistakes in Campus Speech Policies for university administrators, which we announced yesterday.

Schools: Purdue University