A College President Defends Free Speech

Oct 30, 2013 |  Peter Wood

Font Size  


A College President Defends Free Speech

Oct 30, 2013 | 

Peter Wood

Hadley Arkes is the Edward N. Ney Professor of Jurisprudence and American Institutions at Amherst College.  He is something of an institution himself.  He is a brilliant scholar but perhaps known as much for his irascible temper and aggressive style of argument as he is for the substance of his positions.  The combination of intellectual virtuosity and pyrotic style is not that unusual. Think of John Silber, David Horowitz, Robert Bork, and Charles Murray among the contenders for the title Most Froward Public Intellectual, conservative division.  Professor Arkes is by most accounts the king of this hill. 

On September 13, six Amherst alumni from the class of 1970 met with Amherst President Carolyn A. "Biddy" Martin to request that the college "dissociate itself from both the homophobic substance and the intellectual dishonesty of Professor Hadley Arkes's writings in non-academic publications, in which he regularly chooses to identify himself with the College."  The quotation is from a letter sent by the six (Ronald Battocchi, Ernest "Tito" Craige, John Greenberg, Warren Mersereau, Robert Nathan, and Eric Patterson) to other Amherst alumni asking them to co-sign a letter supporting their "request."  

President Martin listened to the complaint but turned down the request.  In a letter posted October 1 on the college website she cited the college's "commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression, and the special role of academic institutions in protecting those freedoms" as reasons to leave Professor Arkes free to make his arguments against same-sex marriage and to identify himself in his writings as an Amherst professor. 

Bollinger's Failure

Her stand is commendable and is, of course, exactly what we should expect from a college president.  Her duty is to uphold academic freedom from forces--whether they be reactionary, illiberal leftist, or simply special interest--that would sacrifice it in the name of some greater good or would, alternatively, conjure some explanation of why this particular act of censorship isn't really a violation of the principle.

But what we should expect of college presidents isn't always what we get.  We have had plenty of incidents in which college presidents confronted with egregious violations of academic freedom just sit on their hands.  Or, if pushed, make a token show of action. Or, if that doesn't work, intervene well after the fact.  October 4, 2006, radical students mobbed Jim Gilchrist, the founder of the Minutemen, who was speaking on campus at the invitation of the Columbia College Republicans.  Gilchrist was silenced and the event broken up.  Initial response from President Bollinger:  crickets.  At the end of the term, Bollinger wrote a mealy-mouthed letter to the community explaining how his investigation was proceeding.  Eventually, the students who had swarmed the stage and ended Gilchrist's talk got off with a slap on the wrist. As Inside Higher Education put it, the sanctions were "as lenient as university rules allow," which meant that temporary disciplinary warnings were put in their transcripts, to be removed at the end of 2008. 

The Course on Catholicism

Then there was the 2010 case of adjunct associate professor Kenneth Howell, a University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign faculty member who taught an "Introduction to Catholicism."  He was fired after giving a lecture on May 4, on "The Question of Homosexuality in Catholic Thought."  There appeared to be no question that he represented Catholic teachings on this matter accurately, but some of his students judged that Howell actually believed and advocated those teachings.  They complained and shortly later Howell, who had been teaching the course since 2001, was non-reappointed--in a word, fired.  An outcry followed, led by the Alliance Defense Fund, and the university mended its ways via an announcement from its Office of University Counsel.   The letter, of course, admitted no wrong-doing.  Interim Chancellor Robert A. Easter, as far as I know, remained mum from the beginning of the affair to the end. 

I don't want to multiply examples endlessly, but let's not forget what happened at Swarthmore College in May of this year.  A mob of students commandeered a meeting of the board of trustees to stage a protest on the pretext of getting the college to divest in fossil fuel companies.  When one brave student, Danielle Charette, stood up against the mob to insist on the principle of orderly dialogue, the mob clapped her down.  Ms. Charette appealed to a trustee and to President Rebecca Chopp to restore order.  In this case we can watch the proceedings as videoed by a member of the student mob.  President Chopp doesn't lift a finger.  Afterwards she defended her inaction as part of Swarthmore's Quaker tradition, and of course the violators of Ms. Charette's academic freedom paid no penalty at all.   

Good for Biddy Martin

Bollinger, Easter, and Chopp are cut from the same cloth:  unwilling to stand up to the bullies who violate academic freedom with seeming impunity.  It's a cloth that apparently comes from a large loom, as a great many of other college presidents are wrapped in it too.  But not Amherst's President Martin.  For that, we give thanks.

But what of Professor Arkes?  Is he now assured of his academic freedom?  Certainly having the backing of the college president helps.  But he is clearly in a difficult spot.  An alumni campaign to vilify him has spilled into the student press.  After President Martin turned down the petition to censor Arkes, Tito Craige (one of the six original alumni petitioners) wrote an article in The Amherst Student, continuing his campaign.  He explains:  "I get angry when I read that Professor Hadley Arkes compares same-sex marriage to bestiality."  He is standing up for his gay-married sister and "gay students in my high school's Queer Club."  But he insists, "I cherish academic freedom," and he opposes "any effort to censor Arkes." 

Craige evidently has some word games at hand in which censorship can be spelled "f-r-e-e-d-o-m," but the substance of his complaint is that Arkes has ventured beyond the bounds of civility, and the gravamen of that accusation is his alleged comparison of homosexuality to bestiality.  Craige backs this up with a quotation, which you can read in the linked letter, and in its original context in an online journal, The Catholic Thing.  In that article, Arkes criticizes the whole notion of "sexual orientation" as a "self-deception" which is "broad enough" to include not just homosexuality but any sexual predilection.  Once you begin to name what some of those predilections are, you are exposed to the rhetorical trick of metalepsis. 

No Metalepsis, Please

Let's move this to neutral territory.  If I say, "I like Empire apples and upstate farms and country churches," I am not comparing Empire apples and country churches.  They are elements in a chain of association that evokes autumn for me.  People generally know how to read such chains of association.  They can, with some poetic power be compressed:  "An Empire Apple is a country church."  That doesn't literally mean I equate apples with architecture.

But people also know how to twist such associations into offenses.  Last year I mentioned Michael Mann and Jerry Sandusky in an article about the misbehavior of Penn State's then-president Graham Spanier.  There was no whisper of comparing Mann and Sandusky but proximity was enough for numerous Mann apologists to declare that I had compared Mann to a child molester.  That's how the game is played. 

And I am pretty sure that Professor Arkes also knows that's how the game is played.  But he loves the provocation.  The result can be pretty ugly.  One of the people responding to Craige's letter traces another chain that extended from Arkes's comments on abortion in class, to his students' views, to the suicide of a student who didn't take his class.  The metalepsized version in the writer's own words:  "One student and a good friend took her life as a result of Prof. Arkes' view on Abortion." 

More Francis, Less Torquemada

The provocateur professor of jurisprudence clearly knows a lot about juris, but maybe not so much about prudence.  That said, as far as I can tell he hasn't transgressed the boundaries of academic freedom.  His writing respects evidence and rational argument; there is no hint of plagiarism; he libels no one; he is open about his sources and methods; and he writes on topics which are directly related to his academic expertise. 

How this gets twisted in the hands of his opponents is worth noting.  In a letter to President Martin, Craige and Mersereau accuse Arkes of "gay bashing" and they add, "Arkes is guilty of sexual misconduct every time he denigrates people solely on gender orientation." 

It isn't clear that Arkes has denigrated anyone of the basis of "gender orientation."  But, of course, if you define "gay bashing" and "sexual misconduct" broadly enough, anyone advocating traditional views of human sexuality, let alone Catholic teachings, can be condemned. 

As it happens, President Martin is herself openly gay.  I don't know whether this makes her principled decision to support Professor Arkes's academic freedom more courageous, but it does seem to underscore that real academic leaders know when to set identity politics aside.  Hats off to Biddy.  And Hadley, you've got a genius for bringing out the worst in your opponents. To counsel moderation at this point probably wouldn't do much good, but it may not be too late to suggest you seek a little more St. Francis and a little less Torquemada.


This article originally appeared at Minding the Campus on October 29, 2013.

(Image from www.bravamagazine.com

geoeaverrge s

| October 31, 2013 - 9:58 AM

Craig’s List
A U.S. Supreme Court Justice has argued that the age of consent should be lowered to 12; a Massachusetts Supreme Court Justice has argued that lesbian close relatives should be allowed to marry; present court cases argue that more than two people should be allowed to marry.

Although I am not aware of a case on bestiality marriage, if pedophilia, incest, polygamy, and polyamory are legally rationalize, the same logic would apply to bestiality.

John Greenberg

| November 01, 2013 - 11:00 AM

Mr. Wood fails to mention that the six alumni who met with President Martin have made clear in every communication that we respect both Professor Arkes’ right to speak and the principles of academic freedom.

But the College ALSO has free speech rights, and should use them to dissociate itself from intellectually untenable, hate speech.  I agree with Justice Brandeis: “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.” (Whitney v. California, 274 U.S. 357, p. 377 http://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/274/357/case.html  In short, I’m “more speech” and to end the College’s “enforced silence.”

For that very reason, it is more than a tad ironic to see President Martin argue that “If there are inaccuracies in the work of scholars more and better speech will correct them,” in a statement whose entire purpose is to explain why she REFUSES to any effort to do so in this instance.

I also heartily endorse the principles of academic freedom, as articulated in the AAUP’s 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, to which Amherst College subscribes:  “As scholars and educational officers, they 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.”

This statement provides four criteria defining a professor’s responsibilities. Professor Arkes has flagrantly violated three of them:

1) “Hence they should at all times be accurate …” My letters have shown in detail (Attachment #1: http://terrasirradient.org/2013/04/07/greenberg-reject-intellectual-dishonesty/) repeated and indisputable violations of this rule in the writings for which we requested a response. 

2) Professors “should exercise appropriate restraint….”  Can anyone truly suggest that comparing a loving, lasting marital relationship to sex with animals, underage children, or corpses is an exercise in “appropriate restraint?”  If so, exactly what would LACK of restraint look like?

3) Professors “should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.”  As the six of us pointed out repeatedly, Professor Arkes NEVER does so, although he is surely aware that the opinions he expresses DIRECTLY contradict the stated INSTITUTIONAL posture of Amherst College.  Indeed, he always does precisely the opposite: he identifies himself with his institutional affiliation and makes no disclaimer.  It is worth noting that Professor Arkes COULD omit his affiliation to the College altogether (he has other affiliations), but I am not aware of any instance of his doing so.

It is unavailing to suggest, as President Martin claims, that Professor Arkes “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.”  It is strikingly odd, to say the least, to see President Martin attempt to equate the phrase “every effort” in the AAUP statement with NO effort.

Moreover, the professors to whom she refers are most often writing about issues which have no direct bearing on their institutions, or about which their institutions have expressed no positions. Indeed, as President Martin notes, most often “universities and colleges avoid taking institutional positions on controversial political matters.”

But that’s not the case here, as President Martin is also at pains to point out: “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.”

Indeed, it is precisely this contradiction—between the way Professor Arkes acts through his writings and the way Amherst College positions itself—which lies at the heart of my request to the College.  When a professor repeatedly addresses a topic which is within his field of expertise, and therefore knows or SHOULD know that the positions he advocates are in stark distinction to those professed by his institution, the AAUP guideline clearly states that he should say so.  Professor Arkes never does.

Since Professor Arkes has failed to do so, the six of us requested that the College do what Johns Hopkins University did in a strikingly similar case: namely, to dissociate itself from his remarks.

John Greenberg

| November 01, 2013 - 11:02 AM

There is a second point which Mr. Wood deftly ignores.
Mr. Wood’s glib analysis of Professor Arkes’ statement about bestiality as metalepsis misses the point entirely.  Here is the actual Arkes statement, conveniently overlooked here: “[T]he key abstraction, settling off ripples of self-deception, is that term “sexual orientation.” The term is broad enough to encompass sex with animals, pedophilia, even necrophilia….
{T]he notion of “sexual orientation” [is] quite unstable: Many people shift back and forth across a spectrum that may now include the bisexual, fetishistic, transvestic, zoophiliac (sex with animals).—Hadley Arkes, The Catholic Thing, May 2013
It’s quite clear that Professor Arkes IS saying that the term sexual orientation includes the spectrum he recites; in other words, that these things are, as a legal matter, related to one another. This is NOT analogous to saying “I like Empire apples and upstate farms and country churches,” which are disparate things all of which happen to be among the speaker’s preferences, but rather “I like music from Bach to Beethoven,” from which you may correctly infer that I also like Haydn and Mozart.

Robert Yamins

| December 20, 2013 - 11:58 AM

In addition to fully supporting John Greenberg’s comments above, I would be most interested to know what Mr. Wood thinks of the fact the Amherst has steadfastly refused to allow any alternative commentary by alumni on the President’s letter in any College-wide publication, web site, or other media.  It has not even responded to requests to post corrections to, or commentary on, on the letter on the College web site.  It has denied access to almost all college listservs (which reach only a fraction of alumni anyway) for this purpose.  It has rejected all letters to the Editor on this subject for its quarterly alumni magazine.  When I sent a letter to College officials asking that they reconsider that decision, cc’ing the Chairman of the Board of Trustees, the Chairman’s contact information was suddenly removed from the alumni directory on the College web site.  Most other alumni trustees are similarly hidden from view on that directory.  Even The Amherst Student, after publishing Tito Craige’s letter, has suddenly stopped responding to requests for publication of more complete documents and analyses of this subject. 

Is this what Mr. Wood and President Martin think is “commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression, and the special role of academic institutions in protecting those freedoms”?  Does Mr. Wood think this behavior is “commendable”?  Or does this behavior belie the College’s true purpose:  not to protect academic freedom (because as per Mr. Greenberg, academic freedom was never threatened), but to protect the College from the rage of alumni who would falsely ALLEGE such a threat and yank their financial support.  What a shame that fear has denied alumni and students the opportunity to hear all sides and to discuss openly and in depth the real and very complex issues behind this matter, which go far beyond a simplistic and facile defense of academic freedom.

I would reverse Mr. Wood’s turn of phrase above:  does Amherst spell freedom “c-e-n-s-o-r-s-h-i-p”?  Or perhaps “h-y-p-o-c-r-i-s-y”?

Robert Yamins

| December 23, 2013 - 4:36 AM

I must correct an unfortunate word usage in my previous post.  I meant to ask in the 2nd paragraph:  “Or does this behavior REVEAL [not ‘belie’] the College’s true purpose..”.