"Academic Freedom is Not a License for Bigotry"

Ashley Thorne

In the news today is a story about a professor bullied out of a job because of her controversial views. The headlines reinforce the bullying, calling her a “Foe of Gay Rights,” and an “Anti-Gay Scholar.”  

This year the New York University School of Law asked Thio Li-Ann, who holds degrees from Oxford, Harvard, and Cambridge, to teach a course at NYU on human rights law. After she accepted the job, it was discovered that Professor Thio had taken a stance against the legalization of homosexuality while serving in the Parliament of Singapore. In her 2007 speech in Parliament arguing in favor of Singapore continuing to criminalize sex between men, she said, “there is no such thing as sexual minorities at law,” and declared, “diversity is not license for perversity.” Many NYU students and alumni, outraged to learn of this, circulated denunciations of Thio and her teaching appointment, saying that her position on homosexuality was inconsistent with the University’s nondiscrimination policy.

The school’s LGBT student group, NYU OUTlaw, however, chose conversation over condemnation. They published a statement earlier this month setting out their intention to engage Professor Thio in a “respectful and productive dialogue about the boundaries of human rights.” The group said it planned “to hold events to explore issues of academic freedom, LGBT rights, and human rights in Asia, and we look forward to Dr. Thio’s participation in the discussion.”

But other individuals used a different tactic, a petition to rescind Professor Thio’s appointment, which says, “While Dr. Thio believes that ‘diversity is not a license for perversity,’ we believe that academic freedom is not a license for bigotry.”  The petition, created by members of a Facebook group called “NYU Students and Alumni opposed to Thio Li-Ann teaching Human Rights,” has been signed by 868 people so far. In addition, students have sent angry emails to Professor Thio, drawing her, apparently, into some heated exchanges with her detractors.

As a result, Thio decided not to teach at NYU in the fall. Her resignation letter said that “it has become clear to me that the fraught atmosphere of hostility towards me is inimical to an effective teaching and learning environment,” and that “Friends and colleagues have also expressed serious concerns about my safety and well-being.”

Through all this NYU has stood by its appointment despite intense pressure to retract its offer. Dean Richard L. Revesz of the School of Law released a statement, published online in The New York Times, to explain why. The University was unaware of Thio’s positions on homosexuality when it invited her to teach, he wrote; but even if it had been aware of them from the beginning, that should not deterred it from giving her the job. Revesz’s statement took a serious look at the meaning of academic freedom:

An academic's views on a substantive issue should be irrelevant to his or her suitability to teach a course in a particular area as long as the opposing views are treated fairly in the classroom: A proponent or opponent of the death penalty can be equally qualified to lead a seminar on capital punishment, for example. The contrary position would be a serious affront to academic freedom, would lead to endless political litmus tests, and would greatly impoverish academic institutions, which gain so much from the robust discussion of controversial legal issues.

NYU’s principled stand contrasts with other universities which do stifle robust discussion of various ideas. Liberty University’s recent decision to de-recognize its chapter of the Young Democrats Association (YDA) was chiefly based on the group’s stance on abortion and gay marriage. While this case affected students rather than faculty members and a private religious college rather than a public university, Liberty’s action illustrates the widespread belief that a college may set its own political agenda—and that whoever does not conform to its prescribed set of values should be excluded from the academic community.  

We applaud NYU’s choice to uphold academic freedom as a rare instance of a university acting rightly in the face of controversy. It is unfortunate that many of the students and alumni who attacked Professor Thio did not follow NYU’s example. Because of their refusal to hear an opinion they didn’t like, the law school will miss out on learning from a teacher who could have broadened their understanding of intellectual diversity.

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