Peter Lange, Provost of Duke University and Professor of Political Science, made a very unusual address
entitled “Free Speech and Speaking Freely” on January 11, 2007 to the Arts and Sciences Council of his university. Granted that the recent events at Duke embodied in the “Duke Lacrosse” case have caused quite a stir, but the tone and content of Dr. Lange’s address is quite disturbing to me. Apparently, Dr. Lange is troubled by “democratized” communication – those mechanisms that reduce 'the elitism of “publication” and the control of opinion.' He wishes certain groups (i.e., members of the Duke University faculty) to be able to make public statements without being subject to public comment and public criticism. To him, it seems, academician’s freedom of speech is somehow equated with not being held responsible for what is said.
In Dr. Lange’s address he reminds us that 88 members of Duke’s faculty posted a signed advertisement in the Duke Chronicle (the university newspaper) stating their point of view of with regard to recent events (March 2006) on and near their campus in the city of Durham, North Carolina. The impetus for their commentary was the turmoil associated with certain allegations against players on the Duke Lacrosse team. A very thorough history of this turmoil can be found covered by history Professor KC Johnson
on his blog relating to the case
Dr. Lange makes note that “some of our faculty … have been under repeated attacks in personal emails and blogs” precipitated by the message of their controversial ad (captured here
). Then he makes his first troubling point:
As we all are aware blogs and email have “democratized” communication; anyone with access to a computer can get in the game as writer or spectator. In many ways this is a very good thing, for it reduces the elitism of “publication” and the control of opinion by opinion “sellers”. Nonetheless, this “democracy” is also permissive of saying almost anything, about almost anyone or anything, using any language, no matter how distasteful, disrespectful or dismissive. We can spread our ideas faster, and without the mediation of others, but we can also control neither their dispersion nor the nature and distribution of reactions to them. In fact, if those reactions distort the account of what we have said, there is likely no way to correct the record for the large number of people who may have secondarily received those distorted interpretations.
While he concedes that, “In many ways this [democratization of communication] is a very good thing” – he then proceeds to lament that it exists. For of this environment where easy transmission of ideas is possible, and where vigorous response to public statements can be heard he says, “I do not believe the extreme of this condition is productive of the best virtues of free speech. It can come to inhibit speaking freely or leave free speech on controversial issues too much to the thick-skinned or insensitive.”
The real argument of Dr. Lange is that some of his faculty should be protected from public denunciation for making controversial (or what I would call inane) statements. He seeks to stem the flood of critical comment.
To me, this is a preposterous position. Dr. Lange must believe that faculty at his esteemed institution are somehow beyond criticism by mere mortals. He seems to believe that faculty status at Duke somehow conveys an elite status that establishes faculty member’s public comments as prima facie truth. What planet did Dr. Lange come from?
As I understand the world, academic credentials certify that one is able to defend a position against criticism. It is that very ability to defend one’s positions that gives the statements of faculty credibility. The inability to defend a position (especially comments made publicly) reveals either an indefensible position, or an intellectual weakness in the defenders.
Here we have Dr. Lange arguing that democratized criticism is somehow stifling “free speech.” I have watched the criticism of the ad signed by this group of 88 faculty – and there is much intellectual criticism of the content. Dr. Lange excuses his defense by focusing on the weakest of the criticism – which we all know to be simple name calling. He ignores legitimate commentary and the unwillingness of the group of 88 to respond to real intellectual criticism.
I, for one, am quite disappointed at the attitude: one of “don’t question us or hold us responsible for defending what we say.” Lange seems to be running interference for these faculty – carrying their water, if you will. “Please leave them alone and don’t criticize,” he seems to say.
Academics must be able to defend their public statements or they should not be called academicians – this has always been the litmus test of worthiness to belong in academe. But I must say, I am less worried about the academic qualifications of these specific 88 faculty members than I am about someone within the academe (Lange) feigning ignorance of the qualifications for belonging in that group.
Seeking to excuse academicians from defending their public statements is indefensible, Lange. Don’t cheapen the profession.
[By the way, I do not think that my own comments, these in particular, should be made under the cover of anonymity. I am Craig M. Allen, Professor of Finance in the School of Business at Brigham Young University - Hawaii.]