Another public university speech kerfuffle: On the defense of liberal but not conservative speech by San Diego State

December 29, 2021 • 10:45 am

In an op-ed in the Times of San Diego, we read that a Dean at San Diego State University, a public California college, emitted some pretty inflammatory tweets dissing Republicans and making other extreme political statements. The question is not whether this is a free speech issue (it isn’t, despite what the headline below implies), but whether the Dean’s speech was wise, advisable, and could have the effect of chilling other people’s speech. And there’s another question about whether SDSU really defends everyone’s speech, or only the speech of faculty having the “correct” ideology (i.e., that of the “progressive” Left).

Click on the screenshot below to read.

From author Herman:

On Dec. 1. Monica Casper, dean of the College of Arts and Letters at San Diego State University, tweeted: “Just so we’re clear on the Right’s agenda — racism good, abortion bad, money good, women bad, capitalism good, sustainability bad, stupidity good, science bad, power good, equality bad, white people good, nonwhite people bad. Stench, indeed.”

And a day later, Casper followed up with this observation about the Supreme Court: “Two sexual predators, a white lady, and some racists walk into a courtroom…” Sure enough, the conservative media picked up the story.

First, on Dec. 21, The College Fix, a right-leaning online news site focusing on higher education, ran a story about how an “SDSU dean publicly criticizes ‘stench’ of conservative agenda.” The next day, Fox News ran a more extensive story on their national site which has garnered, as of this writing, over 8,000 comments.

Here are Casper’s tweets; she is Dean of the College of Arts and Letters and a Professor of Sociology, so she’s what the Brits call “a big noise” at the  school (i.e., she has power):

This one came after Kyle Rittenhouse’s “not guilty” verdict:

And here’s the tweet she wrote when the Supreme Court began hearing the Dobbs v. Jackson case, about Mississippi’s new and draconian anti-abortion law:

First of all, is this free speech? Yes, of course! She’s tweeting from her personal Twitter account, where she can say pretty much what she wants. I’m not sure whether deeming two Supreme Court justices—presumably Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh—”sexual predators” would constitute defamation, but I’ll leave it to the lawyers here to decide. I have no quarrel with the content of her tweets vis-à-vis the First Amendment.

Is it advisable speech? Well, if I were Dean I wouldn’t have said these things for two reasons. First, it paints Casper as a hothead, and someone so woke that she sees the Rittenhouse verdict as an example of “white supremacy”. And even I, as someone opposed to the Republican Party and what it stands for, wouldn’t paint Republicans with such a broad brush. After all, the party contains a lot of women, and not all of its adherents are racists. Nor would I diss the Supreme Court that way, though I’ve argued strenuously that it’s now full of religion-soaked conservatives that have created a right-wing activist court.

But there’s another reason why Casper’s tweets were inadvisable. As the Dean with the most power, what she says, whether or not it’s prohibited by the Constitution, will have a tendency to chill the speech of faculty and students over whom she has power. Faculty and students alike will be aware of her rather extreme views, and that is liable to inhibit the speech of those who take issue with her views—especially students and faculty, whose promotions and tenure she presumably vets.  This chilling of speech is the topic of the University of Chicago’s Kalven Report, prohibiting the University from making official statements on politics, ideology, and morality.

But again, her statements aren’t official ones, so she didn’t violate the Kalven report’s dictates, even though no school other than ours has such a report. No, what’s wrong with Casper’s statements is that they paint her as a hotheaded and non-judicious person, which could be damaging to her, and they’re also liable to make those below her at SDSU keep their mouths shut if they’re more conservative than she. In other words, she had a right to say all that on Twitter. But, like somebody standing outside a synagogue with a “Gas the Jews” sign, her speech is legal but unwise.  Deans should have better sense than to issue such stuff. But she should not be punished. She should be countered with words that are critical, like the ones I’ve just written.

Of course people complained, and the President of SDSU did what she should have done: asserted that Casper had a right to say what she did. Fox News provided a response of President Adela de la Torre:

“It is important to know that faculty speech is protected by both the First Amendment and academic freedom principles, which are advanced by the American Association of University Professors,” the school said in a statement to Fox News. “At SDSU, we encourage all members of our community, including our faculty, to engage in open discourse, as it is our responsibility as a public institution to uphold and protect free speech. We know that open dialogue may introduce conversations about topics that are uncomfortable for some.”

That’s what the University of Chicago would say in any similar case.

de la Torre’s own Twitter feed is very tame, touting the achievements and goodness of her school. She would not, I think, get embroiled in ideological issues.

Well, actually she did—at least once. The op-ed in the Times of San Diego reports this:

In 2018, shortly after President Adela de la Torre arrived, someone sought to discredit a conservative economics professor by digging up and publishing satires that this person published when he was an undergraduate over twenty years ago.  Rather than defending this distinguished member of the faculty and denouncing the use of ancient juvenilia to discredit him, the university responded by condemning the professor: “The language and sentiments expressed in these posts are counter to the values of any institution which supports the principles of diversity and inclusion.”

And yes, here’s the President’s tweet from 2018, which is very different from her response to Casper’s intemperate tweets:

This apparently refers to SDSU Professor of Economics Joseph Sabia, who is reported in the school paper, The Daily Aztec, of having made offensive blog posts when he was a Ph.D. student  at Cornell between 2001 and 2003—fifteen or more years before the President declared that his posts were “contrary to the values of diversity, respect, and inclusion.” The paper reports some of what he said in these posts; I’ll give two examples from the Daily Aztec (now deleted but archived). Note that the op-ed maintains that these statements were satirical, not serious:

One of the blog posts, written by economics professor Joseph Sabia, attempts to strike a metaphor between gay sex and campaigns against high-fat foods.

“In gay sex, we have an activity that is clearly leading to disastrous health consequences,” Sabia wrote in the 2002 blog post. “What rational person would engage in this sort of activity? There is only one solution – let’s tax it.”

Note that Sabia is gay!

There’s more:

Another blog post, published in March 2002, attacks the sexual promiscuity of girls in college.

“The chant of Gen. Y college babes might as well be ‘We’re here, we’re whores, get used to it! No, most girls are not actually uttering those words, but the slutty sentiments are implicit in the standard female college behavior – wearing tight shirts and pants, getting publicly drunk, hanging on every guy around, and engaging in random sex,” the blog post read.

Yes, these are stupid and offensive, even if satirical, but he had a right to say what he wanted. And SDSU could have found them before they hired him and promoted him to full professor. Now it’s too late.

The statements came to light in 2018 only when Sabia was invited to testify before a House Committee, but someone dug up the old blog posts and so the committee canceled Sabia’s appearance. That’s when an outcry brought those early statements to the notice of SDSU’s president.

Should Sabia be disciplined? Of course not: those statements constituted free speech, and only came up years after he made them. One of them is clearly satirical, as Sabia is gay. And Sabia apologized for them in 2018:

“I regret the hurtful and disrespectful language I used as a satirical college opinion writer 20 years ago,” said Sabia. “I am a gay man in a long-term, committed relationship and these charges of homophobia deeply hurt both me and my family.”
“My peer-reviewed professional work on veterans’ health, school shootings, discrimination against LGBTQ individuals, the opioid crisis, and the minimum wage are a more accurate representation of my more than 14-year career as an applied microeconomist,” Sabia continued.
So was President de la Torre justified in condemning Sabia’s blog posts as her “personal response”? Well, that’s disingenuous, because most of what she said is also an official response of SDSU published on the official SDSU News Site.  The official response, though not identical to what de la Torre wrote, is so similar that it was probably written by her and tweaked by Legal (or vice versa):
The language and sentiments expressed in these posts are counter to the values of any institution which supports the principles of diversity and inclusion. SDSU unequivocally rejects any sentiment which seeks to undermine or devalue the dignity of any person based on their gender, orientation, ability, or any other difference among people which has been an excuse for misunderstanding, dissension or hatred.
Freedom of speech is the right of every individual, and that right affords the responsibility to challenge and to oppose the spread of fear and intolerance. This responsibility extends to challenging and reflecting on our own former statements and beliefs. We believe that diversity and inclusion is a journey, not a destination and that many individuals will change their perspectives over time. SDSU promotes open expression of our individuality and our diversity within the bounds of courtesy, sensitivity and respect.
Whoever wrote the statement above violated the principles of our own Kalven report and produced words that could chill free speech. Who decides what the “values of San Diego State University” are? Do ALL the faculty, alumni, and students agree with her? If you criticize Islam, is that also “counter to the values of SDSU”?  And as for the President’s “personal statement” asserting that free speech is a “two way street” (always be aware of hedges like that), it’s only so because if you speak freely, you invite others to challenge you by speaking freely.  You might be demonized, and that goes with the territory. But what de la Torre means by a “two way street” is that you’re free to speak, but you’d better speak responsibly!

By calling out Sabia many years after the fact, and asserting that his earlier statements violated the “values of SDSU”,  President de la Torre overstepped her bounds. Yes, again what she said was not illegal, but it was certainly chilling of the speech of others.  What she should have said is exactly what she said in defense of the Republican-hating speech of Professor Casper, which I repeat:

“It is important to know that faculty speech is protected by both the First Amendment and academic freedom principles, which are advanced by the American Association of University Professors,” the school said in a statement to Fox News. “At SDSU, we encourage all members of our community, including our faculty, to engage in open discourse, as it is our responsibility as a public institution to uphold and protect free speech. We know that open dialogue may introduce conversations about topics that are uncomfortable for some.”

In fact, Sabia wasn’t even on the faculty when he made the offending statements! (The President could have added that.) But a version of this same statement would have served as a response to the Sabia kerfuffle.

Or does SDSU defend only liberal faculty and condemn the speech of conservative faculty as “contrary to its values”?

13 thoughts on “Another public university speech kerfuffle: On the defense of liberal but not conservative speech by San Diego State

  1. I absolutely support the natural right of humans to engage in inadvisable speech. I just wish it weren’t an issue as often as it is. It feels like everything has an asterisk these days. Was it like this in previous generations?

  2. You know what word I hate? “Diss”, and its up-market brother “disrespect” (as a verb). Let us abandon the murky question of what respect is and whether someone deserves it, and just say so-and-so insulted someone.

    As for Casper, she’s done nothing wrong. Serious people, though, should avoid tweeting like teenagers, just because the humour is on them.

    1. Let us abandon the murky question of what respect is and whether someone deserves it …

      Certainly there’s gotta be a carve out for Otis and Aretha. They deserve their propers when they get home.

  3. I would be more interested in knowing why adult and apparently educated persons would want. to say or express opinion on tweeter. Do. they really think the world wants it or do they have other mental problems – like maybe Trump?

  4. As an Aero article I have cited here before reports, the SDSU administration is now requiring a “Diversity Statement” in the evaluation process for faculty retention, promotion, and tenure—and it introduced this innovation in a typically underhanded manner,
    Needless to say, Professor Monica Casper’s previous academic niches have been in Gender Studies at Arizona and at Vanderbilt, and also in previous administrative positions. This is probably a CV that is now typical of academia: a path directly from one or another Grievance Studies department into administrative posts, always of course including the buzzwords that start with D, E, and I. This well-beaten path explains exactly what is happening to the academic world of the Anglosphere.

    1. Sadly true! During The Great Awokening of the past decade, the corruption of one academic discipline after the other has proceeded apace, at first in the humanities and the so-called “social sciences”, but now affecting even many medical schools, which boast of their obsession with “anti-racism” using all the empty shibboleths favored in Grievance Studies. Such universities as Yale and Princeton which began with religious charters increasingly resemble madrassas for the production of wokesters, as well as for the creation of the apparatchiks of the academic nomenklatura.

  5. Just so we’re clear on the Right’s agenda – racism good, abortion bad, money good, women bad, capitalism good, sustainability bad, stupidity good, science bad, power good, equality bad, white people good, nonwhite people bad. Stench, indeed.

    A tad Manichean, Dean Casper, no?

  6. Even black-and-white thinking, though that terminology is probably my inner racist speaking.

    And then there’s de la Torre’s ‘contrary to the values of diversity, respect and inclusion that I, faculty, staff, students and alumnus hold dear.’ Not a single dissenter at all from her specific values? Could any conservative expect a fair hearing from such people?

    Edit: meant to be a reply to KK @#5

  7. Agree that the double standard regarding the public comments from SDSU on these two professors’ personal writings was wrong and troubling. However, based on the information in this article and the links, I would recommend women undergraduates avoid taking courses from Sabia. More so about women applying to graduate programs in Economics at SDSU. I understand he has apologized, but the apology was for sounding homophobic. I don’t agree entirely with Herman’s summary of Sabia’s writings as “ancient juvenilia.” He was a Phd candidate at the time. His dissertation and other public writings laid the groundwork for his professional reputation, leading to his appointment at the University. Perhaps if I saw the original context of his writing on young women, I would agree it was satire and merely foolish. Perhaps if I knew more about him personally I would think it was ancient juvenilia. Based on personal experience, I would need to know a lot more about his attitudes before I was comfortable.

  8. Monica Casper’s comments were certainly ill-advised – ditto President Adela de la Torre’s. Given that the Kalven Report rules don’t, sadly, apply and that the First Amendment ones do I’m not sure what the remedy is in cases like this.

    in the UK, Professor Kathleen Stock recently felt that her position was no longer tenable at the University of Sussex. It appears that academic freedom is being eroded in many countries.

Leave a Reply to Jon Gallant Cancel reply