University of Rochester economics professor Steven Landsburg is under fire this week for his discussion of rape in a blog post. UR students have demanded his censure and are planning protests while UR has correctly refused to discipline Landsburg for an exercise of academic freedom. Indeed, these students (like the French students discussed earlier on the subject of free speech) have lost their bearings in demanding punishment for the expression ideas or opinions by a faculty members in my view.
In his blog — “Censorship, Environmentalism and Steubenville” — Landsburg discussed the recent case in which two high school students in Steubenville, Ohio, were convicted of raping a female acquaintance who was unconscious, incapacitated by alcohol. He opined “As long as I am safely (unconscious) and therefore shielded from the costs of an assault, why shouldn’t the rest of the world (or more specifically my attackers) be allowed to reap the benefits?” He added “If we legalize the rape of unconscious people, we will create an incentive to render people unconscious.”
Students were outraged and started a petition demanding that UR President Joel Seligman censure him. Daniel Nelson, a UR graduate student, explained “We want to give the university a chance to express its outrage. There are many people who have not signed the petition but nevertheless want to protest his remarks as insensitive, irresponsible and and even dangerous.” A national group, WORD (Women Organized to Resist and Defend), has also launched a campaign demanding that Landsburg be fired.
I do not challenge the right to protest such statements. The best response to bad speech is good speech. However, it is wrong to demand the termination or censure of an academic for expressing his views on his private blog. The vital intellectual life of a university requires constant fealty to free speech and academic freedom principles. Professors will often challenge the status quo or even insult majoritarian values with their lectures and writings. It is part of the pluralistic and passionate discourse that makes a campus a unique place for thought and expression. Disagree with Landsburg but don’t try to silence him.
Landsburg insists that “we all understand how horrible rape can be” and his blog was merely an “abstract inquiry.”
Landsburg has previously attracted national and local criticism in television interviews. One such occasion involved his defense of Rush Limbaugh’s attacks on Georgetown University student, Sandra Fluke over her testimony before Congress advocating mandating birth control coverage in some insurance programs. Landsburg insisted that “[t]here are really good arguments for subsidizing and bad arguments for subsidizing [birth control]. However, [Fluke] didn’t bother to make any. She made no argument. She simply said she wanted it subsidized.” That seems fair game. However, he then discussed Limbaugh’s calling Fluke a “slut” and said “A far better word might have been ‘prostitute’ (or a five-letter synonym therefor), but that’s still wrong because Ms. Fluke is not in fact demanding to be paid for sex…The right word for that is something much closer to ‘extortionist’.” That writing brought a public rebuke from Rochester President Joel Seligman. Once again, such public criticism is part of free speech.
However, the effort to censure or terminate Landsburg is beyond the pale in my view. Students particularly should be the defenders not the detractors of free speech. Universities are sacred places for freedom of thought and expression. It is maintained to allow students to grow and thrive as intellectuals. They should be the last group to demand punishment for the expression of unpopular thoughts.