President

Free Speech and Institutional Responsibility

Submitted on Tuesday, 10/1/2013, at 7:02 PM

Last weekend I had the pleasure of hearing a “point-counterpoint discussion” between two Amherst alumni, both of whom have argued before the Supreme Court in landmark civil rights cases. Paul Smith ’76 and Bert Rein ’61 explained the differences in their theories of the Constitution, gave their interpretations of the Fourteenth Amendment, and respectfully but also firmly disagreed about the wisdom of affirmative action policies in college admissions. Listening to their conversation, I was again reminded of the distinctive responsibility of colleges and universities to protect spaces for freedom of expression so that the force of argument can help us resolve the hardest of problems.  Civil, intelligent, and carefully reasoned debates like the one last weekend have become far too rare. I am glad it took place on a campus known for its intellectual rigor and holistic admissions, as well as its commitment to enrolling and educating a socio-economically, racially, and ethnically diverse student body.

At the moment, we face a different, but equally complex set of issues concerning speech and respect. Last spring the College received demands from some alumni that the institution issue a public statement condemning some of the views of Professor Hadley Arkes and barring him from citing his Amherst affiliation when he signs his commentaries. Our reasons for declining to denounce his views and prohibit his use of his title were grounded in our commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression, and the special role of academic institutions in protecting those freedoms. 

The alumni who contacted me in the spring were seeking an institutional response to articles published in March by Professor Arkes in opposition to same-sex marriage. The letter-writers expressed outrage at his views and the language in which they were presented. Some alumni emphasized their concern about the environment on our campus for students. One argued that Professor Arkes’ work fails to meet minimum scholarly standards and, therefore, falls outside the purview of academic freedom.  Different letters called for different measures.

The greatest source of offense among the alumni who wrote was an article in The Catholic Thing in which he questions the use of “sexual orientation” as a ground on which to forbid discrimination, writing that, “The term is broad enough to encompass sex with animals, pedophilia, even necrophilia.”  I won’t recapitulate his argument; you can find the article here: http://www.thecatholicthing.org/columns/2013/the-supreme-court-hears-the-cases-on-marriage.html. It is worth noting that some of the terms and associations that alumni found offensive in Professor Arkes’ article are part of a form of legal reasoning and testing of claims that is not his alone. Professor Arkes believes that the arguments are being misconstrued by his critics.  At the same time it is also worth noting that references to sex with animals (and the rest) in a piece about same-sex marriage, whatever the intention, can easily have the effect of reinforcing negative stereotypes and feelings about homosexuality, as well as stirring hurt and anger.

In response to the alumni who contacted me, I explained last March that the principles of academic freedom and freedom of speech protect Professor Arkes’ right to express his views, as an individual, even if the arguments or the manner in which they are made may offend. I added that freedom of speech and academic freedom have served as a powerful force for those advocating the expansion of rights at times when majority opinion did not favor them, including those who have fought for gay rights. Amherst, as an institution, has a clear non-discrimination policy, which explicitly includes sexual orientation and gender expression.  We take seriously all complaints that are brought forward from students, faculty, and staff. More generally, the College welcomes gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender students, staff, and faculty, supports a vibrant queer community on campus, and works actively to ensure that everyone here has an equal opportunity to learn and thrive in our community. We insist on what we call respect for persons and we proudly proclaim that, “Respect for the rights, dignity, and integrity of others is essential for the well-being of a community.”

Colleges and universities do not regulate the speech of faculty members when they express themselves in the press as citizens. Our restraint at the institutional level arises from our responsibility to protect and promote freedom of expression. The Kalven Report, issued by the University of Chicago in 1967, offers a touchstone explanation of why universities and colleges avoid taking institutional positions on controversial political matters, except in extraordinary circumstances.  “The neutrality of the university as an institution,” the report reads, “arises then not from a lack of courage nor out of indifference and insensitivity.  It arises out of respect for free inquiry and the obligation to cherish a diversity of viewpoints.  And this neutrality as an institution has its complement in the fullest freedom for its faculty and students as individuals to participate in political action and social protest.  It finds its complement, too, in the obligation of the university to provide a forum for the most searching and candid discussion of public issues.”

Still, some critics ask whether Professor Arkes meets the special obligations that the American Association of University Professors and the Amherst faculty itself associate with freedom of expression. According to the AAUP Statement on Academic Freedom, faculty, when they speak or write as citizens, “should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.” The Amherst faculty endorses the AAUP statement and has made it into College policy. The faculty also created its own statement on freedom of expression which holds, additionally, that “the College assures and protects the rights of its members to express their views so long as there is neither use nor threat of force nor interference with the rights of others to express their views.”

Amherst believes that civility and respect for persons enlarges the community of free expression by ensuring that all members of our community feel welcomed into the exchange of ideas. If there are inaccuracies in the work of scholars more and better speech will correct them. As to whether Professor Arkes has done everything possible to make it clear he does not speak for the College, he has done what faculty all over the country do, which is to sign articles with their institutional affiliations, and otherwise to make no claims to represent the views of their colleges or universities. As to restraint: though I, personally, wish he had exercised more of it in his rhetorical choices, I do not believe a line of argument and a means of testing claims that is still part of legal discussion can be considered by a college to be out of bounds or that a college should regulate the speech of a faculty member. At the same time, I also wish some of Arkes’ critics would use more restraint in the ways they seek to involve the College and exercise more care in the arguments that they have been using.  

This moment is like others on our own and other campuses—desegregation; the Vietnam War, women’s rights, and apartheid in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s; and now the extension of gay rights to include same-sex marriage. I personally believe that one day soon associations of same-sex marriage or homosexuality with such things as pedophilia, bestiality, and necrophilia, even if only as a means of testing legal claims, will be remembered as profoundly misguided ways of thinking about humanity and equal rights, born of their moment but now obsolete.

In times of ongoing debate, it is essential that colleges and universities protect the free exchange of different perspectives, while taking every reasonable measure to protect their communities from discrimination and disrespect. Thus, I return to where I began: The distinctive responsibility of colleges and universities is to protect freedom of expression so that the force of argument can help us resolve our hardest problems. The more contentious the issue, the greater the responsibility. As we undertake the exacting work of maintaining an environment on campuses in which freedom and respect are maintained, institutions will need to stand up to pressure from all sides, protecting the hard-won principles of free speech and non-discrimination and sorting out the complicated issues that arise in specific cases. These are the commitments that sustain our ability to foster critical dialogue in society.

 

President Biddy Martin

President's Reflections

Welcome! In this occasional series of commentary pieces, I look forward to sharing my thoughts on a range of issues that affect the College.