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On Marquette Classroom Controversy, Rebuttal Ignores Facts

On his philosophy news site Daily Nous, University of South Carolina associate professor Justin Weinberg responded today to a blog post I wrote about hostility towards certain viewpoints at Marquette University. In his post, Weinberg argued that graduate student Cheryl Abbate was the “target of a political attack” by one of her students and that she was simply abiding by Marquette’s harassment policy, not censoring student speech, when she told him certain viewpoints weren’t welcome. Weinberg’s reasoning is flawed on several levels.

To review: A student in Abbate’s ethics class objected to her allegedly stating that “everybody agrees” on the issue of gay rights, so “there is no need to discuss it.” After class, he approached her and recorded a conversation with her in which she defended the exclusion of particular viewpoints from the classroom because they might “offend” students.

Weinberg argues that Abbate was simply controlling the scope of the classroom discussion, as all instructors must do. He writes that during the next class after the recorded incident, Abbate “noted that class time is limited.” Yet, in the recorded conversation, Abbate repeatedly cites the offensiveness of certain types of statements in declaring them “not appropriate” for the classroom. Here is a partial transcript of the student’s recording:

Student: Regardless of why I’m against gay marriage, it’s still wrong for the teacher of a class to completely discredit one person’s opinion when they may have different opinions.

Abbate: Okay, there are some opinions that are not appropriate, that are harmful, such as racist opinions, sexist opinions. And quite honestly, do you know if anyone in your class, in your class is homosexual? And do you not think that it would be offensive to them if you were to raise your hand and challenge this?

Student: If I choose to challenge that, that’s my right as an American citizen.

Abbate: Well, actually, you don’t have a right in this class, as the, especially as an ethics professor, to make homophobic comments, or racist comments, sexist...

(At this point, the student interrupted Abbate and the conversation shifted direction.)

The fact that Abbate cited limited time as her reason for shutting the discussion down on the second day does not negate her plainly communicated intention to keep certain opinions out of the classroom.

Weinberg next asserts that Abbate was right in being concerned about students taking offense to a student voicing his or her opposition to gay rights, because as an instructor, Abbate is “required to be in compliance with the university’s harassment policy.”

But no harassment policy should be so broad as to render speech causing mere offense punishable. The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, the federal agency that enforces the anti-discrimination laws with which Marquette must comply as a condition of accepting federal funds, has made clear that “the offensiveness of a particular expression, standing alone, is not a legally sufficient basis” to render it punishable under the law. Instead, “harassment must be sufficiently serious (i.e., severe, persistent or pervasive) as to limit or deny a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from an educational program.” In other words, “to be prohibited by the statutes within OCR’s jurisdiction, [harassment] must include something beyond the mere expression of views, words, symbols or thoughts that some person finds offensive.” So Weinberg’s contention—that by shutting down certain viewpoints to preemptively prevent a student being offended, Abbate was only doing her job—relies on a depressingly broad but tragically common misreading of what is and isn’t harassment in the educational context.

What’s more, Marquette’s harassment policy is inconsistent with Marquette’s stated commitment to free inquiry (which I cited in my previous post) and with common sense. The alarmingly broad policy prohibits, among other things, “verbal … conduct” (i.e., speech) including “a single incident” when it is “intimidating, hostile or demeaning or could or does result in mental, emotional or physical discomfort, embarrassment, ridicule or harm.”

Under this policy, if one simply says something to another student that could result in emotional discomfort or embarrassment (regardless of whether it in fact does), then one is guilty of harassment. This could easily include a statement from a professor to a student that the student’s sincerely held beliefs are “inappropriate,” “harmful,” “racist,” or “sexist.” To be clear: By this definition, Abbate has already harassed the complaining student. And the policy certainly covers innumerable instances in which students or professors challenge each others’ beliefs—interaction that is at the heart of a meaningful college education.

Despite claims to the contrary, Abbate advocated for the exclusion from the classroom of viewpoints she finds “offensive.” To defend this goal by citing a policy so broad it could be used to shut down nearly any discussion of any importance is to provide no defense at all.

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