Monday, September 15, 2003

Enforced civility 

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, from Saigo's convocation speech, that there was a pernicious new initiative coming to control speech on the campus. Early last week we saw what they had in store. This is a proposed (not yet implemented, still under debate) document titled "Civility and Academic Freedom". Herewith, a critique, or perhaps a mini-Fisking.
One of our key goals at Saint Cloud State University is to foster a climate of civility and mutual respect among all individuals, regardless of their race, ethnicity, religion, gender, age, sexual orientation, disability, economic status or other characteristic.
What's missing from that list? Could it be ... viewpoint?
To build a vital community of learning, a university must provide an environment where civility is powerfully affirmed, where the dignity and well-being of each member of our community are valued and supported, and where equality of opportunity is vigorously pursued. Because of the diversity of views and opinions among us, we will not always agree with one another. Our task, however, is to create a University environment in which all participants are equally welcome, equally valued and equally heard.
Well actually, no. Our task is to pursue truth, to extend the body of knowledge and the number of people who share in it.

Academic freedom and freedom of speech are also cherished values at SCSU.
"Also"??? What is the word "also" doing in there? Is this to suggest that the values promulgated in the first paragraph are at odds with academic freedom and freedom of speech? That is an amazing admission if so.
We welcome an open exchange of ideas and opinions in a climate of mutual respect, cooperation, and civil interaction.
Wait for it ...
However, ...
Ah, there we are. "However." This is the 'however' that comes after you tell your child all the ice cream and toys you would have bought had he or she not used indelible ink on your new sofa. This is the 'however' that comes after you tell your signficant other all the wonderful times you shared and just before you tell them you're not sharing any more times. It's the 'however' that says something is about to be taken away.
...when these freedoms are used to promote divisiveness through personal attacks or acts of intolerance or intimidation, we are obliged to condemn such acts as antithetical to our ideals and to our shared responsibility for each other�s welfare. Divisive statements or abusive diatribes that go unopposed create a terrible legacy.
Then oppose them. Condemn them. That is indeed your obligation: Speak up! Cry "diatribe" and let loose the dogs of civility. And not just any diatribe, but abusive diatribe. But that's not enough for our administration.
We must discourage such acts because they poison the climate of trust and respect that must prevail at the university if we are to serve our educational mission, our students, and each other well.
This conflates the actions within a classroom with those outside. I have no problem enforcing civility rules on a classroom where learning goes on. I do it myself. You can't call people 'idiots' in my class. And I've argued in general that faculty have a responsiblity to treat students well outside the classroom. But if I choose to call someone an idiot on an email list, say, because they think increasing the minimum wage increases teen employment despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, and when that list consists not of students but other faculty and staff, what mission are we harming? (And to those that say my use of the word "idiot" would cause me to lose support, I say that's my problem, not yours.)
When we permit discrimination, harassment or the creation of a hostile or abusive environment for any of our community members, we fail ourselves and our community as a whole.
As Eugene Volokh points out, there's no exception to the First Amendment in a workplace. Hiding a speech code behind discrimination and harassment law will not spare the university from a lawsuit, as Shippensburg University just found out.

Maintaining a climate of civility requires vigilance, balance, and a clear sense of personal responsibility to the SCSU community. Each of us has an individual responsibility to conduct ourselves in a manner that reflects and supports these shared values.
Really? I do not recall taking a loyalty oath when I got here. I do not recall being required to share any values without receiving something in return. Particularly in a public university, enforcement of a loyalty oath is patently unconstitutional.
In addition, as part of our collective responsibility as a university community, university policies have been established to eliminate violence, discrimination and harassment on our campus, and we expect all members of the SCSU community to abide by these policies. Consistent with these policies, disciplinary action will be taken against individuals when violations occur.
Now maybe I've just been here too long and am getting paranoid, but what is it that "disciplinary action will be taken against"? Who decides what is a violation and what is not? What crosses the line into a diatribe (which, in unofficial notes from a meeting between the faculty union and the administration, will be their focus, rather than divisiveness)? It is difficult for me to believe they are even serious about this. The administration cites, inter alia, the AAUP as the source for their code. When writing recently on academic freedom, their legal council notes these guiding principles for free speech and harassment:
  • Policies should track the discrimination laws and be applied so as to recognize the different types of opportunities and benefits at stake in the context of higher education. Anti-discrimination policies should regulate conduct, not the content of speech.
  • University officials should articulate values of tolerance and civility, and respond with "more speech" when racist or sexist expression takes place.
  • Content-neutral regulations can be used to limit disruptive behavior and expression (e.g., rules against fighting words, disturbing the peace, alcohol and drug abuse, vandalism of property, arson).Arthur L. Coleman and Jonathan R. Alger, "Beyond Speech Codes: Harmonizing Rights of Free Speech and Freedom From Discrimination on University Campuses," 23 J.C. & U.L. 91 (1996).
In short, if the administration looked at the AAUP statements on academic freedom they certainly didn't get the message. Where they have cribbed some of the language, in fact, is this statement on civility from IUPUI in 1997. What they should be cribbing, instead, is the Bill of Rights.