Over the past month, I think I have been interviewed no less than 50 times by various media outlets—national (ABC, Time, U.S. News & World Report), international (Reuters), regional, and local. The questions most frequently revolve around Larry Summers and Ward Churchill—two men who are calling unprecedented attention to academic freedom in America’s universities. The more I think about their cases, the more I think that we might be enjoying a rare opportunity to do serious damage to a concept that has done more to harm free expression on campus than anything else—the idea that “offensive” speech is somehow less valuable than subjectively defined “civil” or “tolerant” speech (it’s amazing how much the speech we agree with—no matter how aggressively stated—seems civil and reasonable).
Larry Summers and Ward Churchill both uttered “offensive” speech—but speech that is offensive to different communities. The academic community seems to have more or less shrugged at Churchill’s expression but cannot abide (at least much of the Harvard undergraduate faculty cannot abide) Summers’ expression. The larger public has shrugged at Summers’ speech and is enraged by Churchill’s. Thus, at different campuses two individuals who could not have more distinct ideologies are being threatened with punishment for much the same reason—they have offended a large number of people.
Is it finally clear that no expression is truly safe when free speech rights depend on subjective listener reactions?