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.
Landsburg received his a PhD in mathematics from the University of Chicago in 1979 and spent time at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.
82 thoughts on “University of Rochester Professor Under Fire For Blog Post”
Adopting an attitude of apathy or vacillating interest in the cultivation of your
blog will not suffice. They have since evolved
into invaluable online marketing tools.
Without reading his original article, and just the quotes, it sound line the anology he’s making is:
• If I’m willfully ignorant that I’m possibly allowing myself to be molested, then why shouldn’t my molesters reap the benefits?
• If I’m stupid enough to persist in the behaviors that got me that way to begin with, it’s in the best interest of molesters to perpetuate those conditions.
It sounds like a valid description of what banksters and government is doing to the people today. Was that the point he was trying to make?
If so, what’s the problem?
I am of the understanding that Professors no longer have unprotected free speech. Even with tenure, they can be dismissed based upon activities that are not within the preview of the office held.
Now, if he were a politician he would be absolutely protected.
As lottakatz said, “More speech.” Always…”More speech.” (lottakatz: Yes to “intellectual duels.” What a great idea.)
An update on McGowan:
“Daniel McGowan to Return to Halfway House”
By: emptywheel Friday April 5, 2013 1:55 pm
When these kinds of mini-controversies erupt I think a better solution than calling for a professors firing would be an intellectual duel. In the spirit of a full examination of a controversial idea a student organization should petition the Dean to organize a debate. Some willing faculty member (or make it a round-table, multi-player verbal/intellectual sport) will debate the issue with the professor initiating the controversy. I bet it would be interesting and informative. More speech, not less speech.
The voters did not vote for Akin because his words showed just how stupid he is. And the voters aren’t restrained as to who or why they vote for or against you.
Too much spin!!!!!!!!
His views of women are certainly suspect based on his comments.
“Misunderstanding” My fingers are stupid tonight.
Mike A. & Gene,
Regarding his remarkably poor logic I’ve been playing with this idea for awhile about people with intelligence being made ignorant by the dogma they’ve absorbed. This dogma could be religious, scientific, political or what have you. Intelligence is one aspect of wisdom, but perhaps the more important attribute is having a mind open to pondering new concepts.
Yeah, it is remarkably poor logic for a mathematician.
Not to mention the complete misunderstand of what “abstract” means.
To be clear, I think that the exact right thing happened on all levels in response to this, but I also think that if his behavior continues to shows this sort of attitude towards women, at some point the University would be absolutely right in censuring and eventually firing him.
I am bothered by two things:
1. University students fail to understand and appreciate what people went through in the ’50s and ’60s to preserve academic freedom in general and freedom of speech in particular. The reaction of students to Prof. Landburg’s blog is senseless except for illustrating the importance of eliminating all codes intended to regulate speech on campus.
2. I am surprised that Prof. Landsburg is a mathematics professor because his logic is deeply flawed and his suggestion that he was simply proposing an “abstract inquiry” borders on absurd. Surely he understands that no person is “safe” in a state of unconsciousness. Further, unconsciousness precludes any form of consent.
A friendly aside to Working Man: leave Harvard out of this. Thank you.
I’ve heard of several people in various academic jobs (museum curators, librarians, etc.) pressured to start a blog by their employer. So who knows, this could be a “you only need three pieces of flare…” situations where the blog is something encouraged, but not “required.”
Either way, I’d be surprised if he didn’t get pulled aside and told a variation of one of my very favorite pieces of advice:
Don’t ever let anyone know just how dumb you are again.
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