University of Rochester Professor Under Fire For Blog Post

SLandsbuUniversity 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.

220px-Professor_Steven_E._Landsburg_speaking_at_Warwick_Economics_Summit_2012Landsburg received his a PhD in mathematics from the University of Chicago in 1979 and spent time at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

Source: Democrat

82 thoughts on “University of Rochester Professor Under Fire For Blog Post”

  1. Here’s the verbatim hypothetical from Dr. Landsburg’s blog:

    Let’s suppose that you, or I, or someone we love, or someone we care about from afar, is raped while unconscious in a way that causes no direct physical harm — no injury, no pregnancy, no disease transmission. (Note: The Steubenville rape victim, according to all the accounts I’ve read, was not even aware that she’d been sexually assaulted until she learned about it from the Internet some days later.) Despite the lack of physical damage, we are shocked, appalled and horrified at the thought of being treated in this way, and suffer deep trauma as a result. Ought the law discourage such acts of rape? Should they be illegal?

    By the way, I have no idea why Professor “Big Questions” (his blog) is so focused on “psychic harm” to the victim. A crime is an offense against the state, not the victim. It’s punished publicly, unlike torts which are punished privately. The essence of criminal punishment is deterrence; the essence of tort law is compensation. Even an untenured one such as little ol’ me knows that. He might as well debate whether a theft has occurred if I never miss the item taken. Does anyone really think a theft hasn’t occurred or that the perp shouldn’t be apprehended and punished criminally?

    Boy, I wish I had time to debate the size of pinheads — like Prof Landsburg.

  2. nick spinelli:

    Our obtuse and abstruse math professor has every right to his provocative free speech just not speech free of his critics. That’s the dilemma. I wouldn’t fire the lout just for this foolishness, but as an aside, I see very little merit in the tenure system as currently constructed which serves to enshrine mediocrity with the glad-handed approval of the mediocre who’ve already “crossed over.”

    No one should be that comfortable in their job, nor should any employer have to suffer the embarrassment of an employee who simply seeks attention in contravention of the school’s mission. What if he had advocated date rape drugs to do quickly what takes alcohol longer to do? Will folks still rush to man the ramparts of free speech and academic freedom then? (Go on ahead without me there my First Amendment worshipping friends.)

    A little uneasiness about your job security is what motivates most folks to work hard and provides an incentive to avoid offending at least half of the customers you serve.

  3. OS, You are reasonable, as I’ve said previously. However, I see liberals and conservatives skew profs of the opposite genre. They both only grudgingly acknowledge the person’s right to free speech. That’s my beef.

  4. Just an afterthought. If a professor, or anyone else, makes enough stupid public statements to bring their judgement and common sense into into question, it does not matter whether it takes place in a classroom or social media. Pretty soon an employer will begin to wonder if that employee is fit to stay on the job.

  5. Michelle,
    No one here said he needed to be fired. On the other hand he said some really stupid things, and is catching flak for that. That is how free speech works. He is free to say outrageous things, but when he does, others have the right to call him on it. Loudly.

    He does not get a free pass under the guise of “free speech”

  6. The issue to me is that he is focusing on the victim and not the perp. Historically, attacking the female victim has been man’s pitiful excuse for using sex as a tool for power and violence. Censor the idiot and force him to get sensitivity training. Tar & feathers would work, too.

  7. How many of us non experts on rape, constitutional law, religion or politics come on this forum daily and comment on it? How many of us have the freedom to blog our opinions-and do so?

    This guy should be silenced because he is a maths professor? He should resign or be fired? WHY? This is not classroom material, this is his personal opinion on his personal blog. Is it on a test? NO? Why does everyone have their panties in a twist? What happened to our right to express ourselves?

  8. Gyges,

    Missed you, my harmonious brother and glad you’re back. Were you on the road?

    Think of you every time my phone rings and … with the help of gbk, I also have two more self/gbk produced ringtones. When I have a minute I’ll send you the mp3s. Love to know what you think of them.

  9. I don’t think the man should be fired, yet the first analogy that came to my mind was the implosion of Gary Hart’s political future: he had told the press to follow him because he had nothing to hide, and then was found with a woman not his wife. At the time, I couldn’t help feeling, as I do in the professor’s case, that he should resign, not for the impropriety, but for being so stupid. I thought that someone who had told the press to follow him and then carried on with someone didn’t have the brains to be President (little did I know who would come in his wake). It’s sort of the same with Landsburg; he had already gotten embroiled in the Sandra Fluke media circus, wouldn’t he have learned to stop making inflammatory remarks about rape, and stick to economics? There is much to be inflammatory about on that subject alone.

  10. Mike Jarvis,

    “Anyone who thinks he was talking literally about rape, instead of using it as a hyperbolic and sarcastic analogy about policies and incentives, to the point they feel he’s justifying rape… really too simple to have an opinion.”

    Anyone who thinks that rape is a good analogy is a thoughtless cretin whose empathy is limited to things that might effect them personally. In other words, a jerk.

    I mean, it’s a HUGE problem in this country, one study had found that 20% of college age women had been raped. Many of them more than once. Not only that, but being raped can have very severe and long term effects.

    If you knew 10% of your audience has been beaten as children, would you use a hypothetical in which certain types of child abuse should be legalized? Of course not, because it’d be a terrible thing to remind people of those experiences for the sake of proving a point that could be proven using another example. As bad as that would be, it would send a message that it’s not a big deal, because people don’t use big deals as examples for stupid economics lessons.

    I don’t think it’s being a drama queen to ask that a professor whose classes have multiple victims of rape be asked to find another example for a post on his blog. I don’t think it’s being a drama queen to object to trivializing the assault and rape of an unconscious teenage girl. I certainly don’t think that it’s being a drama queen to use a protest to use his blog post as an example of the negative effect thoughtless words can have. If well then I’m willing to be a drama queen if it means bringing attention to one of the more horrific aspects of American culture, and working towards it’s change.

    Freedom of Speech does not mean freedom from criticism.


    What are you some sort of PC feminist? I mean, expecting that people don’t go out of their way to normalize assault of women. Then you’ve got the nerve to suggest that female students have some sort of agency, and advocating them using it.

  11. It’s so much easier to comment when someone else expresses mpov so well. raff did it again.

    He can spout his nonsense. The protesters call him out and continue to watch him. He keeps his job as long as he’s actually economics but rape/rapists theory.

  12. On the one hand: I am a little bothered by the fact that the reaction to Lansburg is largely driven by sheer moral outrage. He asks a question that is more difficult to answer than it first appears. Consider the saying “no harm, no foul.” A lot of people are tempted to think this is true. Well, Landsburg’s question asks whether there is any foul in rape if there is no resulting harm. Yes, it is true that in fact most victims, if they knew about it, would feel traumatized. But now Landesburg’s question is “But why SHOULD they feel traumatized given that they are unharmed?” It is at least not trivially obvious how this should be answered. If (as I happen to think) there are good responses that can be given, then the proper response is to give them rather than to insist on the impropriety of asking the question at all.
    But on the other hand: I think that professors have a professional responsibility to show appropriate sensitivity when dealing with some subjects. Landsburg should know that it is possible, or even likely, that people who have been victims of rape might feel that their experiences are being trivialized or even dismissed. This doesn’t mean he should not ask the difficult questions, nor that he is obligated to answer them in a way that salvages the common sense consensus, but as a member of a community that includes rape victims, I think he violated a standard of pedagogical conduct. This is enough to justify criticism and protest, but not, I think, calls for removal.

  13. I think everything is explained at the end of this post when it says he got his PhD in mathematics, and teaches economics. Most of my calculus profs were more than a little off in everyday life. I have only known one math genius who was a regular person and who had some common sense. I haven’t seen him in decades, so I don’t know how he is doing now, but I hope he still has some common sense despite all the years of mathematics. Then he caps it off by teaching economics, another field which has produced some less than stellar common sense folks. At least my economics profs were not as strange as my math profs, but they had little understanding of the real world on the job in industry.

  14. Mark me in the Tony/OS/et al. camp.

    It’s clearly not a firing offense, although he deserves every bit of heat he catches for it.

  15. How about just sticking to the job at hand, getting an education, graduating and leaving. All this extraneous drama, kind of a waste of time in my book.

  16. He has the right to say whatever he wants to say, but the protestors also have the right to call him out on his nonsense. I do not like the idea of any employer disciplining an employee for actions or words done on their own time and therefore the university should not fire him. But lets make it clear. This guy is a creep with a brain.


    The guy was asking questions about rights and what constitutes legitimate prohibitions against certain actions.

    “Let’s suppose that you, or I, or someone we love, or someone we care about from afar, is raped while unconscious in a way that causes no direct physical harm — no injury, no pregnancy, no disease transmission. (Note: The Steubenville rape victim, according to all the accounts I’ve read, was not even aware that she’d been sexually assaulted until she learned about it from the Internet some days later.) Despite the lack of physical damage, we are shocked, appalled and horrified at the thought of being treated in this way, and suffer deep trauma as a result. Ought the law discourage such acts of rape? Should they be illegal?”

    I think where he is wrong is equating the 3 questions he asks. But maybe that is what he is trying to get his students to think about why is rape different even if no injury is sustained. If he believes no harm, no foul then he is manifestly wrong as everyone has a natural right to be secure in their person against physical force or fraud by others. The young woman was unconscious and so was not able to take a rational decision, the boys used fraud and force.

    They are very immoral actors. Little punks.

  18. Landsburg finds himself caught up smack dab in the middle of the infamous rape culture. That culture keeps emphasising what the victim could have done differently, instead of asking what the assaulters and bystanders could have, and should have, done differently.

    Perhaps he knows some of the adults in Steubenville who are right now under investigation to determine what they could have or should have done differently.

    His question, “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?” is a perfect example of the rape culture at it’s core. As the assaulters in Steubenville hung themselves with their own pictures and videos, Landsburg has hung himself with his own words.

    No woman of any sense should feel anything other than objectified by his question and should stay completely out of his orbit … that includes his classroom. As such, his value to the university has been reduced by the percentage of female enrollees that make up the student body.

    Ladies (and gentlemen of good conscience), there’s more than one way to skin a one-eyed alley cat.

Comments are closed.