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'Verbal Violence': The New Sticks and Stones of Professors?

Here is a contribution from Clayton Romans, one of our FIRE Summer Legal Interns, about an academic’s conflation of speech with violent action. (And for our readers in law school, don’t forget that we are always on the lookout for talented legal interns both during the year and each summer!)

Writing in his eponymous blog last week, First Amendment scholar and Internet superstar Eugene Volokh posed this provocative question: Should speech about gender cognitive differences "not be tolerated" on campus, and instead treated as "verbal violence" rather than “free speech"? Volokh says no. That a large number of academics would disagree with him reminds us here at FIRE of how much work we have ahead of us.

Volokh posted his insightful analysis in response to Stanford neurobiology professor Ben Barres’ recent article in Nature, which deals with the debate over gender cognitive differences (GCD). We’ll leave the scientific arguments for others; it is Barres’ bizarre view of free speech, the latest in a troubling trend of academics who seek to use social “science” to justify censorship, that should alarm anyone who, like the Supreme Court, believes universities ought to remain “marketplaces of ideas.”

Amidst extrapolating his own controversial theory on GCD, Barres discusses last summer’s kafuffle over then-Harvard President Larry Summers’ infamous remarks on the subject. Oddly enough, Barres seems to defend—even invite—research into such controversial topics, yet he subsequently abandons reason altogether by equating mere speech about such topics with harmful action. Barres then proposes a speech code so slippery it’s virtually all slide and no slope:

…I welcome any future studies that will provide a better understanding of why women and minorities are not advancing at the expected rate in science and so many other professions.

But…it is incumbent upon those proclaiming gender differences in abilities to rigorously address whether suspected differences are real before suggesting that a whole group of people is innately wired to fail.

What happens at Harvard and other universities serves as a model for many other institutions, so it would be good to get it right. To anyone who is upset at the thought that free speech is not fully protected on university campuses, I would like to ask, as did third-year Harvard Law student Tammy Pettinato: what is the difference between a faculty member calling their African-American students lazy and one pronouncing that women are innately inferior? Some have suggested that those who are angry at Larry Summers' comments should simply fight words with more words (hence this essay). In my view, when faculty tell their students that they are innately inferior based on race, religion, gender or sexual orientation, they are crossing a line that should not be crossed — the line that divides free speech from verbal violence — and it should not be tolerated at Harvard or anywhere else. In a culture where women's abilities are not respected, women cannot effectively learn, advance, lead or participate in society in a fulfilling way. (Emphasis added).

Barres seems to favor silencing anyone “at Harvard or anywhere else” who contends, as Larry Summers did, that the disparate representation of men and women in certain fields may flow partly from biological cognitive differences. Why? Because such speech amounts to “verbal violence” and deserves neither protection nor toleration.

Apparently, we can now add “verbal violence” to a list previously comprised of just sticks and stones. Students beware. Meet the new scientific method, which champions ideological conformity over observation, hypothesis and experimentation. Let us hope Harvard’s faculty missed the July issue of Nature.

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