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. Perhaps, Gyges. It’s not an unreasonable argument. However, I think because of the nature of blogs as neither fish nor fowl properly the only way to determine that would be on a case by case basis. The essence of the question comes down to scope of duties and degree of control. I suspect the University of Rochester does not consider Prof. Landsburg’s blog within the scope of his duties as professor and exercises no degree of control over its administration as they chose to bring no disciplinary action (although they might could for repeated episodes if they draw too much negative publicity to the university depending on the terms of his contract).

  2. Well shoot, how did Whales not come up the first time I did my cntrl F? I’m going to blame my computer even though it’s pretty obviously some user error on my end.

  3. “That being said, what this guy did was on his own blog and his own time and did not refer to his employer in espousing his opinion. ”

    You know, I’m not entirely sure that you can separate out blogs like that.At this point having a blog is a big part of many people’s professional persona. It’s more like being interviewed as an expert on your field, or publishing a book than say a quip at a party. Not quite up to publishing article in a professional journal, but still trading on your standing as an academic employed by a University.

  4. Bron,

    What’s funny about your “saved the whales” example is it totally discounts the anticompetitive nature of Standard Oil’s business practices. There was no altruism behind Rockefeller’s actions. He was eliminating the competition by rigging the legal system in his favor. Saying Rockefeller saved the whales is like saying the DuPont’s saved marijuana. Good for a giggle, but a total pro-laissez-faire economics spin on the actual facts of the matter.

  5. Timmy,
    I believe this question has been answered. An elected official serves from term to term at the will of his or her constituents. I am sure people voted both for and against Todd Akin for many reasons. Some because he made some truly stunning and wrongheaded remarks, and some because of party affiliation. We are not privy to what goes on inside voter’s minds when they go into that booth. The voters did not re-elect Todd Akin. That is quite different from being fired from a job.

  6. Nick,

    And it is anecdotal. Mike and I could play a fun game of naming glorious and ignoble teachers/alums: Carl Sagan!, Robert Bork!, Vonnegut!, Wolfowitz! Yada, yada, yada. It is a great mix of scholars which I’m sure Mike would agree makes for a great learning environment – just stay away from the economics department.

  7. WorkingMan, You will be accused of anecdotal evidence. Folks can name two people they dislike and make that dispositive that the U. of Chicago is bad, but your personal experience is simply anecdotal or possibly false.

  8. “You can be as stupid as you want, but that doesn’t mean that people will vote for you.” – Mike S.

    Are you sure we’re watching the same elections? :mrgreen:

  9. Mike,

    Please lay off UofC. We’re not talking Liberty U here and I bet Harvard shares similar beginnings. You’d be hard pressed to find 10 Baptists there now and while their economics department was/is disgusting, John Hutchins spent some time there (and many more like him) AND they got rid of football years ago. I’ve taken a few courses there (humanities) and the profs were certifiably secular and liberal.

    1. Working Man,

      I ‘ve already admitted that it couldn’t be all bad because Saul Alinsky is a graduate. However, their Economics Department is excreble.

  10. Timmy,

    You confuse employment with election. Todd Akin lost his election because the stupidity of his remarks outraged many voters. That issue had nothing to do with free speech, but had everything to do with the will of the electorate. You can be as stupid as you want, but that doesn’t mean that people will vote for you.

  11. Timmy,

    There is a huge difference in someone who holds an office in the public trust and a private employee and even then many private employees can face repercussions fairly at work if their contracts contain any sort of clause that prohibits them from sullying the public image of their employer. That being said, what this guy did was on his own blog and his own time and did not refer to his employer in espousing his opinion. Someone holding an office in public trust who embarrasses the people he represents should get the boot at the appropriate place – the polls – unless what he says is criminally actionable (which becomes a different story but in the end is still decided at the polls). Akin lost at the polls. His firing was righteous and by the public he allegedly represented. He misrepresented their interests and substituted his own in violation of the most basic job description. Were the people of Missouri right to fire him? You betcha!

  12. Otteray Scribe

    Do you really believe “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”
    If so, then should the employers of Re. Todd Akin fire him?

  13. Rafflaw

    “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.”

    O.K. the people of Missouri are the employers of Rep. Todd Akin? Should they have fired him for his personal comments on abortion when he wasn’t at work in Washington?

    1. Timmy,

      Read this thread and the many on Todd Akin if you want a sense of what people think. As for this Professors remarks compared to Todd Akins my reaction wasn’t rage, it was astonishment at the insensitivity and stupidity of the remarks, coupled with the knowledge that far too many men are insensitive when it comes to women. Satisfied, or do you have a further point to make?

    1. Sorry Timmy,
      But I don’t consider myself a liberal either, so I ‘m not the right person to ask about that either.

  14. Timmy,

    You assume that I’m a Progressive, I’m not so I have no real idea or interest in what they believe.

  15. Mike Spindell

    I am curious if all of the progressives are as outraged with this professor’s comments as they were with U.S. Rep. Todd Akin on his comments regarding rape.

  16. What Mespo said. When a child is assaulted, do they really understand that a criminal offense has been committed against them? Of course not, but it is still a crime. The same goes for someone who is unconscious and then raped multiple times as in the Steubenville case.

Comments are closed.