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LSU head's statement too inviting of speech code

With the transmission of a curiously tone-deaf note to the university community, Louisiana State University President F. King Alexander gave notice that the University seemed ready to surrender its role as an instigator and propagator of critical inquiry, robust debate, and advancement of learning.

After the University of Missouri’s leadership committed professional hari-kari last month in the face of emotion-laden, mindless protests over administrative clumsiness in dealing with alleged racial incidents on its Columbia campus, Alexander felt compelled to send out a memo addressing the issue. He wrote, “Freedom of speech is an integral part of the collegiate experience, but no one is entitled to express their views in a way that diminishes others” because that means “members of our community do not feel safe and welcome at their own university.” Thus, “Oppressive behavior, whether symbolic, verbal, or physical, cannot and will not be tolerated at LSU.”

Unfortunately and problematically, Alexander did not elaborate on what he considers constitutes “oppressive behavior,” although he pledged campus-wide discussion on the matter. Nonetheless, while claiming “Freedom of expression is a sacred right,” he added “that right should be exercised hand-in-hand with a demonstration of our mutual respect for everyone, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, religious beliefs, or sexual orientation.”

So what acts connote lack of “mutual respect?” Certainly if bigots decided to burn a cross in front of the campus African American Cultural Center this unambiguously sends a signal not just of disrespect, but also that blacks in the LSU community should feel physically unsafe.

Yet what about driving a vehicle around campus with an emblem on it of a Confederate flag? Even if the display came from an explicit wish of the owner to convey a notion of black racial inferiority – few who show off these emblems intend that as their main message, if at all – does that then “oppress” others and fails to show “mutual respect?”

Civil libertarians reject the affirmative of that argument. They point out that people do not have the right not to take offense at speech and thereby censor it on the basis that one or more individuals may find it offensive. They also note that government can and must draw a reasonable border between genuine harassment and free speech. Advocating a racist doctrine may denote asininity of its deliverer and offend others, but it does not harass.

More troubling, Alexander seems poised to abdicate the university’s guaranteeing of a marketplace of ideas where critical thinking leads us to the best of these, a function describing the very essence of the university. His remarks indicate a willingness to impose a speech code, lamentably following a trend on other campuses, based upon what the “community” feels appropriate, which becomes very problematic.

For example, some in the social sciences believe in a noxious doctrine known as “symbolic racism.” That is, if one opposes government programs and policies that disproportionately in the population aid minorities – such as cash welfare benefits or affirmative action in hiring and contracting – many believers in the validity of “symbolic racism” argue that in this instance one practices it because of the implication that minorities need assistance to overcome alleged racism infused into society. Do members of the university community require censoring when they disseminate issue preferences opposing affirmative action and decreasing cash welfare benefits?

Or how about classes that involve study of Islam? By American cultural standards, women come off badly in their societal roles and how they must live their lives according to Islam. So should the solution of a female student feeling threatened when a discussion of women’s places defined by Islam occurs in the classroom entail removing that material? In a way that the display of a Confederate flag decal on a vehicle does not, restrictions in these examples strike at the very core of the purpose and existence of the university.

The ambiguity present in Alexander’s notice dangerously sends a chilling message to the very place so dependent upon robustness in speech that it cannot serve its intended purpose without keeping such speech protected. At the very least, Alexander must clarify his remarks to delineate a commonsensical and realistic boundary between safeguarded speech that may offend some but does not harass and speech that genuinely threatens physical well-being. The end product of the discussions he plans to pursue ideally will do that.

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