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Duke Recognizes Prof’s Freedom of Speech on Racial Issues

Duke University professor Jerry Hough has faced criticism in recent days following his comment on a New York Times editorial published on May 10 that some readers characterized as racist. FIRE is glad to see that—despite another race-related controversy just last month—Duke has apparently not taken action against Hough. But the university still seems not to appreciate how open discourse should function on campus.

Hough posted his comment in response to a Times editorial titled “How Racism Doomed Baltimore.” He wrote, in part:

In 1965 the Asians were discriminated against as least as badly as blacks. That was reflected in the word "colored." The racism against what even Eleanor Roosevelt called the yellow races was at least as bad.

So where are the editorials that say racism doomed the Asian-Americans. They didn't feel sorry for themselves, but worked doubly hard.

I am a professor at Duke University. Every Asian student has a very simple old American first name that symbolizes their desire for integration. Virtually every black has a strange new name that symbolizes their lack of desire for integration. The amount of Asian-white dating is enormous and so surely will be the intermarriage. Black-white dating is almost non-existemt [sic] because of the ostracism by blacks of anyone who dates a white.

Although Duke is a private university not bound by the First Amendment, it maintains several written policies that grant community members freedom of expression. Duke promises “the right of all members of the academic community to explore and to discuss questions which interest them [and] to express opinions publicly and privately,” and further states in its policies:

Freedom of inquiry and the free exchange of ideas are essential for the fulfillment of the university’s mission. Academic freedom is a right and responsibility of students as well as faculty.

These are pretty unambiguous promises of free speech. And Duke’s statement in response to Hough’s comment reaffirmed these stated commitments:

[A]s noted in the Faculty Handbook, every faculty member at Duke has a right “to act and to speak in his or her capacity as a citizen without institutional censorship or discipline.”

(Hough is on academic leave, but his leave began before he posted his comment and was not related to any disciplinary matter.) Duke saved its real passion for condemning Hough’s speech, writing:

The comments on the website were noxious, offensive and have no place in civil discourse. … We take issues like this seriously and will use the opportunity to restate Duke’s core values of diversity and tolerance.

Proclaiming that Professor Hough’s speech has “no place in civil discourse” might chill discussion and debate on campus. Duke should remember that in the course of discussing current events and debating questions of obvious public concern—race, LGBT rights, abortion, religious rights, even freedom of speech itself—it is inevitable that someone will be offended by the opposing side’s ideas.

Duke is free to encourage its students and faculty to be civil and tolerant, but it should make clear that doing so isn’t mandatory. Just last week, Boston University managed to express disappointment in incoming professor Saida Grundy’s controversial tweets without suggesting that offensiveness generally should be kept out of debate among campus community members.

Florida International University College of Law professor Howard M. Wasserman posted on PrawfsBlawg yesterday to compare Hough’s situation to one at Northwestern University, his alma mater. In 2006, then-president of Northwestern Henry Bienen responded to Professor Arthur Butz’s praise for holocaust denial thusly:

Butz is a tenured associate professor in electrical engineering. Like all faculty members, he is entitled to express his personal views, including on his personal web pages, as long as he does not represent such opinions as the views of the University. Butz has made clear that his opinions are his own and at no time has he discussed those views in class or made them part of his class curriculum. Therefore, we cannot take action based on the content of what Butz says regarding the Holocaust - however odious it may be - without undermining the vital principle of intellectual freedom that all academic institutions serve to protect.

FIRE hopes that as Duke continues to “restate Duke’s core values,” it remembers the vital principles espoused by Bienen at Northwestern.

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