August 10, 2006

Is the UW hypocritical about free speech values?

David French responds to what was indeed a very short comment by me about his comparison between letting Kevin Barrett teach here at the UW and recognizing a Christian student group that wants to be able to define its membership based on religion. My point was solely to reject the idea that it doesn't make sense to be so lenient toward Barrett and tough on the students. The situations are too different. French says:
The purpose of the comparison is quite simple: to illustrate that Wisconsin's commitment to free speech and the marketplace of ideas is uneven, at best. On the one hand, Wisconsin is willing to give a radical professor more rights than the law requires in the name of "academic freedom." On the other hand, Wisconsin appears to be willing to give Christians fewer rights than the law demands.
I still disagree with him! If Barrett were trying to exclude non-Muslims from his class, the comparison would be apt.

The university perceives Barrett's classroom as furthering the marketplace of ideas, because he's given assurances that he will promote debate and treat different viewpoints fairly. You may find it hard to believe that he actually will, but the decision to retain him is based on that belief, and Barrett was required to give those assurances.

The student group, as I understand it from reading French's piece, is seeking the right to discriminate against other students in order to preserve its ideological character. That may be a worthy pursuit, and the university may be wrong to reject it, but it doesn't demonstrate the university is being inconsistent. The university's decision is aimed at preserving diversity and debate within the group. I understand the argument against this. There is less debate overall if groups can be diluted with members who disagree with what they stand for.

I'm not saying the students aren't right, just that French hasn't identified hypocrisy.


JohnF said...

I don't know about the student issue, and I know more than I ever wanted to about Barrett, but from the description doesn't the former involve freedom of association and the latter freedom of speech?

If this is right, the two are on different planes; there is no "conflict" between (a) "say what you want" and (b) "you can't meet with who you want."

Michael Simpson said...

Mr. French's point is that, absent the presence of particular kinds of groups (or individuals), some points of view won't ever be heard, in this case some kinds of religious views. It's probably not the case that there is a precise parallel here (though I don't see any reason to believe that Mr. Barrett will be fair in his classroom - and I certainly can't imagine that students would expect him to be). But it is interesting, don't you think, that the university is being quite fastidious in regard to Mr. Barrett's rights and, well, not so much with regard to the Christian group? (And johnf is probably right, but the right of association is pretty closely connected to free speech rights - part of the reason for associative rights is to get together and press a point of view).

And I think you're being a bit too casual in throwing around the "discriminatory" label here. Isn't it the casae that *every* group discriminates in some way? How else would they have any coherence as a group? UW-Madison might have a legal case for not recognizing a particular religious group based on the fact that it has membership restrictions, but that doesn't touch at all its moral obligation as a big public university to allow as much leeway as possible for its students to associate with one another as they choose. It's hard not to think that the UW administration isn't just a good bit more sympathetic to the Kevin Barretts of the world than some Christians. (That's probably unfair, but...)

David said...

UW is stuck with Barrett on campus in a classroom teaching to tuition bound students. The Christian group can meet off campus if they want under any rules they choose.

Barrett will toe the party line as long as he is being monitored. When left to his own devices he would be sorely tempted to revert to preaching. I am sure he will teach the effects of hysterical Imams preaching hate and violence to wannabe freelance al qaeda franchisee types who want to blow up planes, trains, and automobiles.

Barrett is rapidly becoming moot!

the pooka said...

Ann --

Thanks for getting this right.

Jeff said...

"The student group... is seeking the right to discriminate against other students in order to preserve its ideological character."Actually, shouldn't it be termed their theological character?

Incedentally, does oes the University allow, say, the Latina/o Law Students Association to discriminate against membership by race? Does ths Law School provide separate water fountains as part of its commitment to diversity?

Daryl Herbert said...

So... the university is trying to protect Barrett's unique viewpoint in order to increase the conversation, and is trying to squelch the Knights of Columbus' unique viewpoint in order to increase the conversation?

I guess there's no hypocrisy, so long as you believe it's good for professors to push wacky viewpoints, but it's bad for students to define their own viewpoints. That's not hypocritical, just paternalistic.

"Hypocrisy" is not a one-size-fits-all charge for everything one does not like. In this case, UW has not failed to live up to its stated values. No. UW has failed to have good values in the first place!

David Walser said...


French does not accuse the University of hypocrisy. (At least, he does not in his second post. I did not reread the first one, but I don't recall him making that charge there, either.) Instead, he's contrasting two examples of the University's behavior and wondering aloud why the University does more to protect one fundamental value than it does another, closely-related, fundamental value. You point out that, in the second case, two values are in conflict: non-discrimination and freedom of association. This conflict, may (and, indeed does) explain the difference in approach taken by the University. However, it's only by French's contrasting the two situations that we learn something important about the University's attitude: in this context, it cares more about protecting students from discrimination than it does about protecting their freedom of expressive association. (One suspects, if in a different context, the University would make a different call. What would happen if a bunch of anti-gay-rights activists wanted to join the gay student association with the view of getting the association to work against gay marriage?) After all, in the first example, the University also needed to make a call between competing values: in Barrett's case, the value of academic freedom is in conflict with the value of teaching the truth. We now know the University cares more about academic freedom than it does the truth.

SGT Ted said...

The purpose of Academic Fredom is to get to the truth. Barretts purpose is to perpetuate kooky lies about 9/11. Tell me, does the Geography Dept have a prof that teaches a Flat Earth course?

The real point is incompetence and moonbattery parading around as scholarly discourse.

Harkonnendog said...

Steven Malcolm Anderson could have pointed us to one of his many graphs.

It is hypocritical if you choose to think about it in terms of an administration deciding what is and is not okay.It isn't if you think of it as a way for an administration to make certain no individual will be stopped from saying something somewhere.

But I think people are confused by how these decisions relate to liberty. Is it pro or anti-liberty to stop a group that discriminates from meeting on campus?

I think it is anti-liberty.