Iowa Professor’s Email Telling College Republicans ‘F@#$ YOU’ Reveals Importance of Free Exchange on Campus

April 22, 2011

The recent, highly publicized email exchange between Ellen Lewin, anthropology and women’s studies professor at the University of Iowa (UI), and the UI College Republicans presents an exciting scenario to the First Amendment enthusiast. This email exchange reveals both the innate desire to communicate anger using inflamed rhetoric, and the opposing reflex of those offended to overreact. The emails also demonstrate the importance of allowing speech to be aired freely. Free exchanges readily expose expression that is extreme, ignorant, or unprofessional.

This saga began when the College Republicans sent out a mass email, approved by the UI administration, inviting students to join the "Conservative Coming Out Week" events.  These events, clearly intended to satirize liberals and supposedly liberal values, included an "Animal Rights Barbecue" and a "sick of being stressed" excuse to miss class (poking fun at some of Wisconsin’s public employees). Outraged by what she perceived as a glib mockery of the prejudice experienced by gays in this country, Professor Lewin fired back, "FUCK YOU REPUBLICANS" and signed the email by placing her name above her university title.

In the interchange that followed, Iowa Federation of College Republicans Chair and UI student Natalie Ginty criticized Lewin for "leaving her credentials at the bottom of the email" as if "she was representing the University of Iowa, not herself alone."  Ginty also penned an email stating that "[v]ile responses like Ellen’s need to end … I am sure you understand that nothing is ever accomplished by aimless screams of attack."  Lewin issued an apology, claiming that "I admit the language was inappropriate, and apologize for any affront to anyone’s delicate sensibilities."  The full text of the email chain can be read here.

I believe that this email exchange is revelatory because it shows that both inflammatory rhetoric and the urge to censor are not confined to those with particular politics.  At this time in our country’s history, liberals (often supported by administrators spearheading the drive to enact speech codes to prevent students from being offended) are most often accused of trying to protect others’ delicate sensibilities. In turn, conservatives (like particular commentators on Fox News and certain Tea Party political candidates) are most often accused of using divisive, incendiary rhetoric. The email exchange reverses that paradigm. It proves that the innate desires to use provocative language, and in turn to censor that language, affect those across the ideological spectrum. Given that we all lapse in civility, sometimes by choice and with good reason, the only principled solution in most cases is to understand why angry rhetoric is used and to allow those who do not control their tempers to expose themselves in the marketplace of ideas.

Mark Bauerlein of the right-leaning Minding the Campus made a great point about how the College Republicans’ request for a "public apology" for Lewin’s "vulgarity" in speaking to students was an improper move, philosophically and strategically, that could apply to those on both sides of the aisle. According to the piece:

The College Republicans, and conservatives in general, would do better to eschew the injured-party role and instead laugh at such comments. Publicize them, yes, and let Lewin and other hot-headed individuals reply again and again. Use the replies as evidence of exactly the bigotry that you allege pervades the campus. (Lewin’s further statements only made her position look worse.) But don’t take an insult so seriously. Don’t assume the thin-skinned role. Other liberals who find such insults embarrassing or ridiculous will only appreciate you for shrugging them off.

Politics aside, this article conveys a foundational principle of free speech advocates. Lewin’s email was certainly unprofessional if she was acting in her role as a professor, and there is a compelling pedagogical argument that the academy suffers when professors demonize an entire viewpoint. However, Professor Lewin’s email did more of a disservice to herself than it injured a particular worldview. Lewin’s vitriol was a direct response to what I believe is the College Republicans’ sophomoric and offensively flippant communication. When speech is largely unregulated, all parties enjoy the right to expose what others might perceive as their ignorance, insensitivity, and intolerance of opposing views.

Schools:  University of Iowa