Remarks about gays spark debate about free speech at Purdue
by Dan McFeely
A Purdue University professor has landed in hot water with students protesting his personal blog — a conservative Web page on which he posted an “economic case against homosexuality.”
Some have called for Bert Chapman to resign or be fired for his Oct. 27 posting, which 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.
“The most concrete way to protect the university’s reputation against academic dishonesty and mediocrity is for him to resign,” said Purdue senior Kevin Casimer, who is organizing a petition campaign against the professor.
“However, 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 says it’s not going to interfere with a free-speech issue.
And Chapman himself defends his blog.
“As a conservative Christian, I firmly believe the homosexual lifestyle is morally wrong, and my blog posting sought to emphasize there are economic and public policy implications to widespread and open acceptance of this lifestyle,” said Chapman, who blogs as the “conservative librarian” at www.townhall.com.
Purdue officials say they have no plans to discipline Chapman, a library science professor who serves as the university’s government information and political science librarian.
“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.”
Free-speech issues often flare up on college campuses, but typically they involve students, not faculty members.
Professors have not been immune to such issues, according to Adam Kissel, a national advocate for free-speech rights whose Foundation for Individual Rights in Education tracks such issues across the country.
“Purdue’s obligation, as a public university, is to defend its faculty members’ freedom of speech and academic freedom,” Kissel argued. The university can choose to take a stand, he added, but should not punish any professor for expressing an opinion.
Chapman, 47, has been a conservative blogger for the past few years, writing about politics, history and the military. His most recent post was a reflection on the Berlin Wall. Chapman also is an author who just published a book on military doctrine.
In a phone interview Wednesday, Chapman said he was surprised at the backlash his blog had caused in the pages of the daily campus newspaper, which has run several letters calling for his job. Hearing rumors of a student protest, he said he wished the matter would simply go away.
“It is sad we live in a time when truly free and open debate on controversial issues is characterized by such virulence,” Chapman said. “As a country, we are in serious trouble if we reach a point when only one side on a public policy issue is allowed to be discussed.”
A statement by a coalition of West Lafayette rights groups, Pride Lafayette and the Purdue Queer Student Union said it supports free speech.
“Supporting free speech does not mean that there are no consequences for such statements,” the statement said. “While it’s clear that all individuals have the right to print anything they wish regardless of the lack of value or research, it’s also true that statements in print (or in this case online) should be rejected and called out when they damage a segment of the community.”
Jennifer McCreight, a Purdue senior from Munster, said on her own blog that Chapman’s views are morally bankrupt.
“I’m seriously disappointed that such an ignorant and homophobic piece could be written by a professor here at Purdue. It makes me ashamed to also call myself a Boilermaker,” McCreight said.
Other professors who have been criticized for their personal blogs say Chapman should not be surprised at the backlash.
Jonathan Katz, a St. Louis-based Washington University professor, enraged many on that campus by his “defense of homophobia” on his personal blog and said Chapman is a victim.
“You see here bullying and an attempt at censorship by a pressure group that is afraid of speech that disagrees with its position,” Katz said. “Bullying dissenters by calling for their dismissal is routine. If people let themselves be dissuaded by bullying from exercising their right of free speech, then that right will atrophy, and we will lose it.”
Indiana University economics Professor Eric Rasmusen was criticized in 2003 when he used his university Web page to post blogs in opposition to homosexuality and particularly the hiring of gay men as schoolteachers — which would be like putting the “fox in the chicken coop,” he wrote.
For that comment, Rasmusen was blasted by gay-rights advocates, and his comments became a matter of a university investigation. On Wednesday, Rasmusen, who is still blogging, said Chapman should not expect much public support from his colleagues.
“Very few professors spoke out publicly for me or for free speech,” Rasmusen said. “Most professors are afraid to talk about homosexuality, I think, because they know how easy it is to say something that would get them attacked for being insufficiently pro-homosexual.”
Yvonne Pitts, an openly gay Purdue professor and constitutional expert, told The Exponent campus newspaper that Chapman’s blog should not be seen as a threat. “I hate to say it, but you need to protect people like Bert Chapman from a constitutional standpoint,” Pitts told the paper.
Benjamin Owen, a graduate student who also teaches chemistry classes, said he felt compelled to contact the university’s Office of Institutional Equality to complain.
“They informed me that this was indeed a freedom-of-speech issue, as I well knew, and that there was nothing directly that could be done,” Owen said. “I really would honestly just like some assurance from Purdue that they do not back Mr. Chapman’s opinions and assurance that he must not allow them to affect his work.”
Purdue officials say they make it clear to its faculty bloggers that they must include a disclaimer that indicates their views do not necessarily reflect those of the university. Chapman has done that.
“The university has a policy prohibiting harassment if it unreasonably affects a person’s educational or work opportunities or affects his or her ability to participate in a university activity,” Norberg said. “Merely expressing an opinion on a Web site does not meet that standard.”
Additional Facts About Bert Chapman » Occupation: Government information and political science librarian at Purdue University.
» Education: Bachelor’s in history and political science from Taylor University (1984); master’s in history from the University of Toledo (1986); master’s in library science from the University of Kentucky (1989).
» Author: “Researching National Security and Intelligence Policy,” 2004; “Space Warfare and Defense: A Historical Encyclopedia and Research Guide,” 2008; “Military Doctrine: A Reference Handbook,” 2009.
The rise of blogs and social networks such as MySpace and Facebook have heightened the debate over free-speech issues on college campuses. Some of the more notable cases:
» Butler University: An anonymous blogger was sued by the university earlier this year for writing a blog that was critical of faculty members. The suit was later dropped, but the student faces internal disciplinary action.
» Chicago: A beauty school student created a Facebook page mocking teachers and classes but wound up being sued in September by the Salon Professional Academy of Elgin for unauthorized use of a school logo; the suit is seeking $50,000 for emotional damage caused by defamatory comments.
» Arkansas: A gay student posted photos on Facebook of himself in 2006 dressed in drag and was kicked out of John Brown University, a Christian college in Siloam Springs, Ark., for violation of campus conduct codes stating that behavior must “affirm and honor Scripture.”
» St. Louis: Washington University Professor Jonathan Katz was criticized in 2005 by students for his “defense of homophobia” Web postings on his personal blog. Katz is still blogging.
» Indiana University: Business Professor Eric Rasmusen blogged in 2003 about his objections to homosexuality, including his opinion that hiring gay people as teachers “puts the fox in the chicken coop.” Students and faculty objected, but the university ruled he did nothing wrong.
» Colorado: In 2001, University of Colorado Professor Ward Churchill wrote an inflammatory commentary about the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in which he said U.S. policy provoked the attacks on the World Trade Center and called the victims “little Eichmanns,” a reference to a Nazi leader. In 2007, the university fired him for what it said was unrelated research misconduct.
Schools: Purdue University