University of Rochester and Towson U. Get It Right on Recent Controversies

April 4, 2013

It’s not often enough that FIRE gets to relay a good example of speech on campus, but today I’m happy to bring you not one but two schools that are fostering proper respect for values of free speech and liberty more generally on their campuses 

The first comes from the University of Rochester, where economics professor Steven Landsburg posed a controversial question on his personal blog, The Big Questions, concerning whether or not harm is done to rape victims if they are not physically damaged by their assault. 

As you might expect, Landsburg’s question stirred up news media from Gawker to The Huffington Post. Typically, when FIRE sees a media controversy around a professor, we often also witness the university rushing to silence the speech (I’m looking at you, FAU) or publicly denouncing the speech while not punishing it—reactions which range from potentially chilling to outright unconstitutional.

The University of Rochester, thankfully, seems to have resisted the urge. Last week, Rochester released a short but simple statement, the first line of which reads: "The University is committed to the academic freedom of our faculty and students. Their views are their own; they do not speak for the University." It makes no mention of an "investigation" or "reprimand" for Landsburg. 

Kudos to the University of Rochester for its actions here. Professors must have academic freedom to ask questions that might be offensive to some. A university that takes its mission seriously must respect those rights, because if we are not willing to ask the hard questions, we will never get the answers to difficult problems. Further, too often universities buy into the idea that what students and faculty members say is somehow going to be labeled the official expression of the university—an idea that simply makes no sense.  

There is some less fortunate news; a group of students have called for the university to censure Landsburg. It’s their right to ask for that, but it’s the wrong course of action. We here at FIRE hope that Rochester continues to affirm Landsburg’s academic freedom and free speech rights. 

The second positive example comes from the ongoing tension over the White Student Union at Towson University. Instead of demanding that members disassociate (though the union is not an official campus group), Towson students have instead countered what they see as bad speech with more speech. Yesterday, about 200 students demonstrated on campus to show their support for diversity and tolerance.

Though FIRE takes no position on Landsburg’s questions or the merits of a White Student Union, we do take a position on campus climates that encourage and foster debate, even when people feel strongly about certain issues. If you couldn’t tell, we strongly support those environments! 

Towson and University of Rochester have shown what a free academy looks like. Trust me—it’s much simpler (and more interesting) to engage in conversation than it is to try and censor others. 

Schools:  University of Rochester Towson University