Civility and Free Speech

October 14, 2014

By Henry Reichman at Inside Higher Ed

In his “Civility Manifesto” published here last week Cary Nelson cites my blog post, “Is Incivility the New Communism?,” as “particularly hyperbolic” in its critique of efforts by some university administrators to demand that free speech be limited to expression they deem “civil.” In his own expression Nelson himself has been known to employ hyperbole — as well as sarcasm — even to the point that some might call uncivil, so it’s surprising he does not recognize that my exaggeration was intentional. Of course, we are not living through a new Red Scare on campus. But the point is that we could be if the incivility monitors have their way.

Nelson asks, “does unrestrained antagonism make for the best learning environment?” It surely does not. But that isn’t the issue. No reasonable person welcomes hatred, harassment, or violence. According to Nelson, “Eloquence in the service of conviction does not require abusive rhetoric or personal accusation.” But, like it or not, free speech does not require eloquence. It’s one thing to encourage civil conduct and reasoned discourse, quite another to regulate expression in the name of such encouragement. But that is precisely what too many college and university administrators and trustees are threatening to do. The threat to free speech rights is real.

Take, for instance, the widely criticized statement by University of California at Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks, which called civility and free speech “two sides of the same coin.” The Council of UC Faculty Associations correctly responded that “while civility and the exercise of free speech may coexist harmoniously, the right to free speech not only permits, but is designed to protect uncivil speech.” A group of veterans of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, the 50th anniversary of which the campus is celebrating, replied: “It is precisely the right to speech on subjects that are divisive, controversial, and capable of arousing strong feelings that we fought for in 1964.”

But we needn’t go further than Nelson’s own campus for the most chilling example of an effort to invoke civility as a criterion of free expression. According to University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Chancellor Phyllis Wise, “What we cannot and will not tolerate at the University of Illinois are personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them.” This extraordinary dictate goes well beyond encouraging civil communication. Under Wise’s disturbing standard a biologist who “demeans” creationism could be out of a job; indeed, the evolutionary viewpoint itself, which creationists claim demeans humanity, could be banned.

While Dirks later clarified his ill-considered statement, Wise has not. Indeed, the Illinois Board of Trustees quickly declared its “collective and unwavering support of Chancellor Wise and her philosophy of academic freedom and free speech tempered in respect for human rights.” According to the board, UI must be a “university community that values civility as much as scholarship.”  We know who should assess scholarship: the scholars.  But who will judge what is civil?  That is precisely the issue.

Nelson is correct that much of the uproar over civility stems from the Palestinian/Israeli dispute and I share his concern about the corrosive effect of that seemingly intractable conflict on both the campus climate and academic freedom. We differ sharply, however, about who is responsible. According to Nelson, only one side is to blame: “verbal excess, aggression, and ad hominem attacks are part of the standard repertoire of the Boycott, Sanctions, and Divestment movement. That typically stimulates raised tempers and sometimes similar behavior on the pro-Israeli side.”

But the situation is more complicated. Elements on both sides invoke the protections of academic freedom and the First Amendment when it benefits them and violate these when it doesn’t.  What about efforts by some supporters of Israel to effectively blacklist faculty members whose views on Middle East studies do not comport with theirs?  This move is truly evocative of the Red Scare and more threatening to academic freedom and the independence of the universities than a few “uncivil” words from pro-Palestinian students.

More important, the two sides are not in equivalent positions. Although support for the Palestinian cause is greater on American campuses than in society in general, those who control the universities — administrators and trustees as well as powerful donors — are most likely to support the Israeli cause. The expressive weapons of those in power and those without power almost always differ. It is usually the powerless whose voices must be shrill, who may break rules to be heard, who, in short, may be uncivil. Civility, however, can be a privilege of the powerful, whose control over institutions often leads them to silence opponents instead of engaging them. AsGreg Lukianoff of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education noted, in his experience “campus administrators are most likely to deem as ‘uncivil’ speech that criticizes them or the university’s sacred cows.”

This imbalance is illustrated by events at Ohio University, which Nelson cites as an example of “uncivil” expression escalating to arrests. Nelson ignores, however, what preceded these arrests. A student government leader filmed a video in which she poured fake blood over herself to protest Israeli actions in Gaza. The video was bold and even graphic, but under the law it is protected speech and as a video abused or threatened no one. The student, however, received numerous death threats. How did the university president respond? In a mealy-mouthed statement he disassociated the university from the video and called vaguely for civility, but remained silent about the death threats, effectively coming down on one side of the controversy. Only later were four pro-Israeli students arrested for disrupting a meeting, which suggests that lame public calls for civility are also largely ineffective.

“When administrators urge us to be models of civility they are doing exactly what their job requires,” Nelson declares. I agree, but the danger to which I and so many others have been responding is that such urgings show undeniable and dangerous signs of becoming requirements. And such requirements may threaten academic freedom and free speech as much as any loyalty oath.

Schools: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Ohio University University of California, Berkeley