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”?

Atlantic article on why universities shouldn’t make official political or ideological statements

November 27, 2021 • 11:45 am

I swear, maybe I should try writing some of my website posts as articles for magazines, where I could actually get paid.  It’s not that I need the dosh, but getting a check is a special form of love in return for one’s words.  Don’t worry, though, I’ll never monetize this site.

The reason I thought about this is because monetized sites, like the Atlantic piece below by Conor Friedersdorf, often have articles about the very same topics I’ve written about days before. You’ll know about the several posts I’ve done about universities like UC Irvine and UC Santa Cruz making unwarranted statements about the Rittenhouse verdict (opposing it because it’s supposed to be an instantiation of “white supremacy”), when they should not be making any official statements at all.  Such statements violate the spirit of the University of Chicago’s “Kalven Report”, which prohibits my university from making official statements about any ideological, political, or moral issues unless they directly impact the mission of the university.  Why? I’ll reiterate what I wrote a week ago:

There are actually two principles of free speech that should be proclaimed and adhered to by every college and university in America, whether they be private or public. (Religious schools, of course, must exempt themselves.)

1.) There must be freedom of speech for all as that freedom is described by the First Amendment and construed by the courts.

2.) The university must remove itself from making official pronouncements on morality, ideology, or politics, except when those statements affect issues that could impinge on the mission of the university itself: teaching, debating, and learning.

The second principle is there to protect the first one. For if the University makes political statements, like the one we’ll discuss today, that chills or quashes the speech of other people who might fear punishment from the administration for their opposing stands.  If an administrative or departmental website puts out a statement supporting the goals of Black Lives Matter, or that the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict demonstrates white supremacy in action, or that science is structurally racist and misogynist, what student or untenured professor is going to contradict that in public?  We already know that about 55% of college students feel that the climate on their campus prevents them from saying things they believe. That goes for professors as well, though the percentage would be lower. Ideally, the figure should be 0%.

The University of Chicago has adopted both of these principles. The first is the famous 2014 “Report on the Committee of Free Expression” headed by Law Professor Geoffrey Stone, with the committee convened by the then President Robert Zimmer. Now called the “Chicago Principles“, the statement has been adopted in its entirety or near-entirety by over 80 American colleges and universities.

Now if I’d had the gumption, I’d have proposed a piece on Kalven and its violation by Rittenhouse-dissing universities. Sadly, the laws of physics prevented me. However, they didn’t prevent Friedersdorf, who undoubtedly got a big wad of green stuff for the piece below (click on screenshot). However, I’m not all that jealous because a.) he did a much more thorough job than I of collecting statements and parsing their meaning, and b.) He’s a better writer than I. So read the article (it’s free); you will find even more examples of miscreant university administrators, though his conclusion is the same as mine: universities should abide by the Kalven Report:

Friedersdorf summarizes several places where administrators issued negative statements on the Rittenhouse aquittal; these include UC Santa Cruz, UC Irvine, and the “progressive” New School, whose President, Dwight McBride, published an official statement that violates Kalven seven ways from Sunday. Friedersdorf’s take on McBride:

At the New School, McBride described a starkly different ethos:

I don’t know immediately how to parse the Rittenhouse verdict at a university where students, faculty, and staff work so tirelessly and passionately for social justice. Therein may lie the answer in this moment: when we don’t know yet what to say, let’s take solace in each other. Let’s unite in our shared commitments and values. I am grateful to be part of this community that is so driven to confront inequality, unpack systemic racism, challenge oppression, and create positive change.

Tellingly, McBride continued:

While we don’t know what to say, we know what to do, which is to act to build stronger communities, unite amongst ourselves, and use our scholarship and research in service of social justice.

He’s not calling for searching, candid discussion among people with diverse views. He’s presuming that the community is united in one collective view––and, what’s more, that the community is somehow united both in not knowing what to say and in knowing what to do about it! And what about professors and students who disagree that the verdict was unjust, or feel upset by inaccuracies in media coverage, or believe that Rittenhouse was a victim of prosecutorial misconduct, or worry that widespread criticism of the verdict is undermining the jury system?

Now deans and departments at my own University of Chicago have issued similar verboten political statements, though none that I know of about Rittenhouse. They’ve concentrated on systemic racism, and they all violate the Kalven Report. In that sense we’re hypocrites, for while ex-President Bob Zimmer recently reaffirmed that departments of our University cannot issue such official political statements, they’ve done it anyway, and the administration is too timorous to order these statements removed.

If nothing is done, the University of Chicago will go the torturous way of the New School and the University of California campuses, issuing statement after statement that gives “official” positions or, like the New School’s statement, tells all the students what they do or must believe and how they must act.  Parents of prospective students, I think, won’t be keen to send their parents to such woke schools, for they’ll get no instruction about what free speech means, much less how to exercise it.  And I’m sad because the unique aspect of the University of Chicago: it’s near-absolute encouragement of free speech, will erode away to nothing.

Those “official” statements are unnecessary anyway. Their main (if not only) purpose is to affirm the virtue of the writer by setting out ideological and behavioral principles that jibe with the progressive Zeitgeist. By doing that, though, they’re chilling the speech of anybody who thinks that, for example, the Rittenhouse verdict was correct. The uselessness of these statements is limned by both Friedersdorf and Glenn Loury:

But most top-down proclamations from administrators are unnecessary: As the Brown University professor Glenn Loury explained last year, they either affirm platitudes or present arguable positions as certainties. “We, the faculty, are the only ‘leaders’ worthy of mention when it comes to the realm of ideas,” he insisted. “Why must this university’s senior administration declare, on behalf of the institution as a whole and with one voice, that they unanimously—without any subtle differences of emphasis or nuance—interpret contentious current events through a single lens?”

It really is crazy—and totally unnecessary. Professors and administrators can write their own personal statements on websites and the like—that is free speech. But they need not, and should not, present those opinions as official views of their universities.

So I echo, and have anticipated, Friedersdorf’s conclusions, which are that universities should adhere to the Kalven principles. The Atlantic has a huge and intelligent audience, and though the Chicago Principles of Free Speech are widely known—and have been adopted by over 80 American universities—the Kalven Report is much less known, and Friedersdorf sets out its history as well as its principles. The report is here, and every university that has adopted the Chicago Principles of Free Speech should also adopt the Kalven Principles. They are simply two arms of the same endeavor: to allow free speech without intimidation. Friedersdorf has one a service by simply bringing this issue to the nation’s attention. But of course administrators at schools like Williams, Berkeley, and Santa Cruz simply can’t restrain themselves from weighing in on politics, thereby making themselves look empathic and sensitive.

Friedersdorf’s beginning:

At universities, the recent acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse should be an opportunity to study a divisive case that sparked complex debates about issues as varied as self-defense laws, guns, race, riots, the rights of defendants, prosecutorial missteps, media bias, and more. If administrators were doing their jobs, faculty and students would freely air a wide variety of viewpoints and have opportunities to better understand one another’s diverse perspectives. Instead, many administrators are preemptively imposing their preferred narratives.

And his ending:

Indeed, there are as many different views of what’s wrong in the world as there are individuals on a campus. People also differ widely in which news events, if any, they find upsetting. Students and faculty should challenge university leaders who, as if speaking for their entire communities, put forth subjective assessments and notions of what everyone else thinks or “must” do. These administrators tell the group what they think it wants to hear, create incentives for people to hide other views, and harm everyone’s ability to inquire and to learn from one another.

I wish that all the readers who fight for free speech at universities would also fight for the prevention of official statements on politics and ideology by those schools which, by giving “official views”, chill everyone’s speech. We already know that many professors and students—more than half of the latter in the U.S.—are intimidated from speaking freely about certain topics. That’s no way to get an education, much less produce a good citizen.