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Academic Version: Applying my personal experiences and academic research as a professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies to provide a more complete understanding of political, economic, and cultural issues and current events related to American race relations, and Asia/Asian America in particular.

Plain English: Trying to put my Ph.D. to good use.

September 21, 2007

Written by C.N.

Who Deserves Freedom of Speech?

Freedom of speech and academic freedom are both cornerstones of American society and particularly, of academia. As scholars, we could not do our jobs as teachers and researchers properly without knowing that we have these protections to challenge conventional ideas, take a critical look at social institutions here in the U.S. and around the world. and on occasion, to say things that may upset the status quo.

But as we also know, there is frequently a thin between freedom of speech and hateful speech and the boundaries between the two aren’t always very clearly marked. That’s the area where confusion and contradictions live. Two recent events highlight this delicate balance between academic freedom and excluding hate speech.

The first is in regard to the hiring process of the inaugural Dean for the new law school of the University of California, Irvine (UC Irvine, my undergraduate alma mater). As the Los Angeles Times reports, the candidate in question, Erwin Chemerinsky, is a nationally-renowned legal scholar and in virtually all respects, is the perfect candidate for the position.

The problem that arose however, was that Chemerinsky is known to be have a “liberal” perspective. As such and apparently, some more “conservative” constituent groups associated with UC Irvine opposed his candidacy. Upon learning of this opposition, UC Irvine Chancellor Michael Drake decided to rescind his offer to Chemerinsky.

Subsequently, scholars at UC Irvine and from around the country blasted Drake’s actions as an insult and threat to academic freedom. Shortly after facing this new firestorm, Drake decided to reverse course again and reinstate his offer to Chemerinsky to be the inaugural Dean of UC Irvine’s law school. Nonetheless, Drake still faces the wrath of faculty members over his initial decision to rescind the offer:

In a conference call with reporters, the chancellor and new dean agreed that Chemerinsky would enjoy absolute academic freedom and would continue to write opinion articles on a wide range of issues, not just legal education as Drake suggested last week.

“Chancellor Drake reaffirmed in the strongest possible way the academic freedom that I would have, as all deans and faculty members do,” Chemerinsky said. He later noted that he was aware that his role as dean also would require him to build a broad base of support. Before he was ousted, the dean had sought conservatives for some slots on his board of advisors. . . .

Business Professor Richard McKenzie did not think the chancellor could keep his job. “I personally do not see how [Drake] can be effective going forward given the opposition across campus to what he did. I’ve never seen the faculty so unified.” The cabinet of UCI’s Academic Senate met in closed session Monday to consider a response to the furor.

The second case over the boundaries of academic freedom centers on Lawrence Summers, former Treasury Secretary under Clinton and President of Harvard University until he was forced to resign over his controversial statements that suggested that women were naturally inferior to men when it came to succeeding in the science disciplines.

As the San Francisco Chronicle reports, Summers was initially invited to be a speaker at an upcoming dinner event of the University of California Regents, but many faculty members objected to his selection and the offer to Summers was subsequently rescinded:

“I was appalled and stunned that someone like Summers would even be invited to speak to the regents,” said UC Davis Professor Maureen Stanton, who helped put together the petition drive. “I think many of us who were involved in the protest believed that it wouldn’t reflect well on the university that he even received the invitation.”

The petition called Summers’ invitation “not only misguided but inappropriate” at a time when the university is working to diversify its community. “Inviting a keynote speaker who has come to symbolize gender and racial prejudice in academia conveys the wrong message to the University community and to the people of California,” the petition said.

So, let’s review — in the Chemerinsky case, faculty cried foul because they felt that rescinding the offer to Chemerinsky was a threat to academic freedom. But in the Summers case, faculty supported the effort to rescind the offer to Summers. Therefore, the question becomes, is this a contradiction, perhaps even hypocrisy?

Why is it okay to support Chemerinsky’s right to academic freedom but not Summers’?

The most obvious answer is that Chemerinsky is seen as having a liberal perspective while Summers, at least judged by his controversial comments about women in the sciences, is seen as having a more “conservative” perspective. Combined with the well-established fact that faculty members, particularly in humanities and social science disciplines, are overwhelmingly liberal, one can understand why Chemerinsky found support while Summers did not.

In my blogs and in regards to what I tell my students, I make no secret of the fact that I consider myself to be quite liberal as well. But I am also a strong believer in freedom of speech for everyone, provided it is not blatantly hateful. In that sense, I cannot help but see these two events surrounding Chemerinsky and Summers as nothing less than hypocrisy.

Freedom of speech is a universal right that belongs to everyone, not just the ones with whom you agree. That means that even if someone says something that I completely disagree with, I still support his/her right to express his/her views, again provided that it’s not blatantly hateful.

In this case, I have no problems whatsoever with faculty disagreeing with Summers’ views, as I do myself. However, I cannot support the decision to rescind the offer to let him speak based purely on such philosophical or political differences of opinion, especially in light of faculty’s support for Chemerinsky’s freedom of speech.

In the SF Chronicle article that I quoted above, Professor Stanton argues that inviting Summers sends the wrong message at a time when the UC system is trying to diversify its community. There is some truth to that statement and indeed, appearances do matter.

However, I would argue that what would send an even more powerful message in support of diversity is to show that all opinions, perspectives, and experiences deserve to be heard, regardless of whether they happen to lie outside of the prevailing political environment or establishment.

This is the same valid argument that I and other faculty have used to promote Ethnic Studies and multiculturalism on campuses all around the country, so why shouldn’t it apply to Summers’ case?

In addition, another way to send a strong message in support of cultural diversity would have been to allow Summers to speak and then for faculty and others who disagree with him to directly and publicly challenge him on his views. The same right that allows Summers to suggest women are inferior gives us the right to suggest that Summers is completely wrong.

This would again demonstrate that the UC system, academia, and our society in general are founded on principles of critical analysis and confronting prejudicial statements, not selective censorship.

As my personal heroes such as Martin Luther King Jr. and the Dalai Lama have so acutely observed, when it comes to achieving real, meaningful social justice, we must be inclusive. That is, rather than solely concentrate on trying to address just one form of discrimination or inequality in isolation, we need to take a holistic view and recognize that all injustices are interrelated.

That is, in the words of Dr. King himself, “A threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” I interpret that to mean that we cannot pick and choose which groups deserve justice and equality while which groups do not.

That is why I personally find it very painful when I hear, for example, when African Americans express homophobic thoughts against gays and lesbians, or when Asian Americans denounce the rights of illegal immigrants to become Americans.

In the same way that equality and justice belong to everyone, so too does freedom of speech.