Syracuse Is Right; Will It Be Right Next Time?

Did Syracuse University do the right thing when outraged demands for cancellation spread over the mind-numbingly idiotic twit by its “queer genderflux androgynous Black woman, an abolitionist, a lover of all Black people, and an Assistant Professor at Syracuse University in the Department of Political Science,” Jenn Jackson? At Volokh Conspiracy, Princeton prof Keith Whittington tries to provide the positive incentive by arguing it did.

Her tweet generated some backlash. The university responded as universities should in such cases—by defending free speech and avoiding any temptation to praise or condemn the professorial speech in question.

While “backlash” is often trivialized as “consequences” or “accountability,” this wasn’t about about disagreement with the substance of her twit, but demands that she be fired to physical threat against her. Who would have thought that when the righteous decided it was their right to “punch a Nazi,” all bets on nonviolence would be off? So Syracuse, a university notorious for its failure to defend academic free speech as well as its Title IX star chamber of doom, suddenly found its courage.

Some have asked the University to condemn the professor’s comments and others have demanded the professor’s dismissal. Neither of those actions will happen. As the home of the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, free speech for all people across the political spectrum, within the limits of the law and the University’s anti-harassment policy, is one of our key values. Speech can be offensive, hurtful or provocative. Still, Syracuse University will stand by the principles of free speech and by our commitment to keeping our community safe in the face of threats and harassment.

As Keith says, this is a good statement, even if imperfect. Why raise the caveat of the anti-harassment policy in the midst of extolling “one of [its] key values”? Are they tacitly saying that they are totally in favor of free speech across the political spectrum except when it hurts someone’s feelings and then they’re not?

Keith tries to take the most generous view of Syracuse’s good will and support of free speech, but not without a bit of a caveat of his own.

As some have noted, Syverud was much less vocal when a professor was targeted by campus activists and denounced by members of his senior administration for calling COVID-19 the “Wuhan Flu or the Chinese Communist Party virus.” On that occasion, FIRE had to remind Syracuse about its obligations when professors say controversial things. Far from vocally defending that professor, Syracuse instead suspended him and launched an investigation over whether he should be further sanctioned and perhaps fired, contributing to FIRE awarding Syracuse a “Lifetime Censorship Award.” That professor’s case dragged on for months before Syracuse finally reinstated him.

It’s easy to take a bold stand in favor of free speech and academic freedom when either the substance or the individual speaker is on the favored team. It’s a lot harder when the words are offensive or the speaker is, say, an old white guy. Had Syracuse’s president learned a lesson here? Will she demonstrate the same support, indeed any support, when the unduly passionate children protest? What if they claim to be traumatized by a professor’s words, that they violate the university’s anti-harassment policy that any speech that hurts student’s feelings and impairs their sense of safety, for real or in an imaginary sense?

Keith makes the point that it would behoove us to be both positive and forgiving of colleges who have a long and sordid history of censorious conduct against speech its deems unacceptable and only finds its principles when it’s convenient. The opportunity may well arise for Syracuse to demonstrate whether it means what it’s now saying or this is just another exercise in hypocrisy, to be rationalized away by the usual bullshit when the speech in issue, or the speaker at risk, isn’t of the sort that the university deems worthy of defense.

It may be that Keith is naive, and indeed, I am too as there’s no purpose in predicting Syracuse’s failure to maintain this principled position at the first opportunity to flip back to the dark side. But when (and if) the time comes when it will be tested, we shall see. It’s not that I have any faith in Syracuse or Syverud, but that there’s little point in condemning their potential for hypocrisy when they will have ample opportunity to prove it, one way or another.

6 thoughts on “Syracuse Is Right; Will It Be Right Next Time?

  1. B. McLeod

    I think the caveat about the limits of the law and the anti-harassment policy means they will still punish disfavored speech. So the position in this instance basically reflects that they will defend offensive speech if the people offended are people they disagree with. After all, those people are only offended due to their own wrong-headedness, and the speaker cannot fairly be “held accountable” for the wrong-headedness of others.

  2. Jason Oliver

    Kent Syverud said the same thing about Professor Dana Cloud in 2017, almost verbatim, rightly refusing to take any action against her or condemn her words encouraging violence against fascists, lamenting that he couldn’t imagine how it was possible to search for truth without freedom of speech.

    They only reinstated Professor Zubieta after he agreed to take “professional development courses” and to retire in 2023. To date, I am unaware of any apology Syracuse University has made to Professor Zubieta for the actions they took.

    We don’t need to look to the future to see if they might engage in hypocritical conduct. If they really had come to the light regarding academic freedom, one would think that they would try and make amends for past wrongs. They haven’t.

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