There is a free speech debate at Drake University over hateful and vulgar tweets from Associate English Professor Beth Younger, who called for Republicans “to suffer.” We have seen increasing vulgar attacks from academics, including such high-profile figures as Laurence Tribe in the last few years. Notably, Twitter did not suspend Younger’s account for calling for harm to all Republicans. I do not believe that she should be barred from social media or fired from Drake as a matter of free speech. Even with professors who have justified the murder of conservatives or killing police are protected in such hateful expressions. The solution to such hate speech is more (and better) speech. I would rather we denounce such speech than censor it.
Beth Younger tweeted on October 26th that “I was just pondering how much hatred I feel towards all the Republican a**holes. They need to suffer.”
Younger also declared that all “men are trash.” and sent a message to U.S. Senator Josh Hawley on Jan. 7 that stated “f**k of you piece of shit.” She also attacked Melania Trump and called Secretary Mike Pompeo a “f**king moron and a traitor.”
Such sentiments are obviously concerning given many Republican students and presumably faculty on campus. It also have an impact on male students taking her class with her stated hatred for their gender. In a compelling and well-considered email, President Marty Martin correctly condemned Younger’s comments as “unacceptable.” Martin however stressed freedom of speech in her email this week:
The Drake University Statement of Principles declares that freedom of thought and freedom of expression are central to our educational mission. We therefore carefully refrain from restricting the exchange of ideas or regulating the content of speech. We recognize that the frank and open discussion of social, cultural, artistic, religious, moral, scientific, and political issues may be disturbing and even hurtful for some individuals, but the principle of free exchange and inquiry takes precedence because of its fundamental role in our educational enterprise. We seek to create through this robust exchange of ideas a community in which shared purpose transcends difference and respect for human dignity transcends conflict.
Younger’s tweets raise serious questions over sexist and political intolerance. However, there is no allegation that she has engaged in discriminatory or hateful conduct in classes. The question is whether universities would maintain such a position in favor of free speech if the statements targeted other groups like a male professor saying the same thing about women. It is not clear if there is a coherent line or policy on such cases. Free speech demands bright lines but the record among universities has been conflicted. I often hear from conservative and libertarian faculty about what they view as a double standard. They do not believe that the universities would show equal tolerance for criticism, let alone hateful attacks, of other groups. Certainly many liberal faculty and students have not shown the same tolerance.
As many on this blog are aware, I tend to be predictable on free speech issues. My natural default is to protect speech, particularly when exercised off campus or on social media. These are difficult cases when statements reflect prejudice and sexism as in the case of Professor Younger. However, there is a fear of a slippery slope once universities begin to punish those with unacceptable views expressed in their private capacity. We have been discussing efforts to fire professors who voice dissenting views of the basis or demands of recent protests including an effort to oust a leading economist from the University of Chicago as well as a leading linguistics professor at Harvard and a literature professor at Penn. The silence of many faculty in the face of crackdowns on free speech has been chilling in the last few years.
There is a palpable sense of fear among many conservative and libertarian faculty and students that they cannot express themselves on campus or in classes without be ostracized or even subjected to retaliatory measures, including attacks by the student government. While faculty member like Professor Younger might not show the same tolerance for opposing views, we have a greater responsibility to regain the trust of our communities in the tolerance for opposing views and expression on our campuses. She is the cost of free speech.