While it is far too early to identify any kind of trend, the beginning of this academic year has included several encouraging free speech moments. First, there was the University of Chicago’s letter to incoming students clearly stating the university’s commitment to free and open—and even uncomfortable—debate on campus. Then Columbia University President Lee Bollinger expressed similar sentiments in remarks to incoming students. And now comes a report that students at the University of Pennsylvania have responded to offensive speech not with calls for censorship, but instead with more speech—drawing praise from the Penn administration.
Inside Higher Ed reports on an email sent to first-year Penn women, inviting them to a party at an off-campus fraternity:
“Ladies,” this year’s email stated, “the year is now upon us. May we have your attention please. We’re looking for the fun ones, and say ‘fuck off’ to a tease.” The invitation also told the women to “please wear something tight.”
Often, crude expression like this leads directly to official complaints against the students involved—remember when the University of Mary Washington disbanded its men’s rugby team after a few of its members were recorded participating in a bawdy rugby chant?
Thankfully, rather than resorting to filing complaints with the university,
a group of female students printed out more than 600 copies of the message and posted them around campus Monday. On top of the printouts, they wrote, “This is what rape culture looks like” and “We are watching.” The fliers also included information about the university’s sexual assault resources.
One of the women involved in the effort told The Daily Pennsylvanian that the group wanted “to let the rest of campus know what they’ve done and shame them for it.” And shame them they did—the semi-private email has now become national news. Penn released a statement praising the students’ efforts, saying: “Challenging offensive speech, as these students did, is important and wholly consistent with the University’s ongoing efforts and the national conversation about preventing and responding to sexual misconduct.”
This is a heartening response both from the students and from the university. (The university’s response is consistent with its recent history of support for free speech, including a green-light rating from FIRE).
If students truly believe there is a systemic problem with college men’s attitudes towards women and sex, the best thing they can possibly do is to expose those attitudes to public scrutiny. Had this simply been reported to the administration, most people on Penn’s campus and beyond would never have learned about this incident. Instead, whatever conclusions we might individually draw about its broader implications, we now all know about the language used in the email.
Author and journalist Jonathan Rauch, who grew up gay in the 1960s and is a staunch opponent of hate-speech bans, argues that allowing offensive speech is, in fact, critical to society’s moral development. Writing about the evolution of American society’s attitudes towards homosexuality, Rauch says:
To appeal to a country’s conscience, you need an antagonist. Suppression of anti-gay speech and thought, had it been conceivable at the time, would have slowed the country’s moral development, not speeded it. It would have given the illusion that the job was finished when, in fact, the job was only beginning. It would have condescended to a people fighting for respect.
And so, 20 years on, I feel more confident than ever that the answer to bias and prejudice is pluralism, not purism. The answer, that is, is not to try to legislate bias and prejudice out of existence or to drive them underground, but to pit biases and prejudices against each other and make them fight in the open. That is how, in the crucible of rational criticism, superstition and moral error are burned away.
The women who publicly posted that email at Penn have taken Rauch’s advice: they exposed an antagonist in an effort to appeal to the conscience of their fellow students, as well as society at large. And the university applauded their efforts.
Whatever our views on the social and political debate underlying this particular protest, we can all agree that this is exactly what healthy debate and dialogue should look like. Let’s hope we see much more like this in the weeks, months, and years to come.