This week Women’s Studies Professor Donna Hughes was publicly condemned by the University of Rhode Island for writing an op-ed that criticized what she called the LGBTQ ideology. The op-ed actually criticized the far right as well for what Professor Hughes calls extreme “ideological fantasies” but the university only objects to her criticism of LGBTQ views from a feminist perspective. The university also warned that, while “faculty have the same rights, obligations, and responsibilities as other American citizens” under the First Amendment those rights are not “boundless.”
We previously wrote about academic freedom issues at University of Rhode Island due to its Director of Graduate Studies of History Erik Loomis, who has defended the murder of a conservative protester and said that he saw “nothing wrong” with such acts of violence. Loomis also declared that “Science, statistics, and technology are all inherently racist because they are developed by racists who live in a racist society, whether they identify as racists or not.”
Hughes actually begins and spends much of her op-ed criticizing the far right and its violent history and ideology. However, she then criticizes what she calls similar fantasies on the far left. In doing so, Professor Hughes was espousing a view shared by other feminists that aspects of LGBTQ writings undermine feminist values and goals. She argues that “The American political left is increasingly diving headfirst into their own world of lies and fantasy and, unlike in the imaginary world of QAnon, real children are becoming actual victims. The trans-sex fantasy, the belief that a person can change his or her sex, either from male to female or from female to male, is spreading largely unquestioned among the political left.” She added that “[w]omen and girls are expected to give up their places of privacy such as restrooms, locker rooms, and even prison cells.”
From a free speech and academic perspective, the issue is not the merits of this argument but the decision of the university to issue a public condemnation. The statement includes the following:
A faculty member’s First Amendment and academic freedom rights are not boundless, however, and should be exercised responsibly with due regard for the faculty member’s other obligations, including their obligations to the University’s students and the University community. As stated in the above referenced documents, faculty have a special obligation to show due respect for the opinions of others and to “exercise critical self-discipline and judgment” and “appropriate restraint” in transmitting their personal opinions.
The University, College of Arts and Sciences and Department of Gender and Women Studies are working to support our students and the community as we move through — and learn from — this situation.
I am concerned what students will “learn from this situation.” The university says that professors do not enjoy “boundless” rights and that they must “show due respect for the opinions of others and to “exercise critical self-discipline and judgment” and “appropriate restraint.” However, the objection is that Hughes published her views about LGBTQ writings. What would the required “restraint” look like in this case? It sounds like Hughes is expected to “exercise critical self-discipline” by not stating her views opposing LGBTQ writing and ideology. The University states categorically that her “perspectives” of LGBTQ foundations “can cause pain and discomfort for many transgender individuals” and the university “does not support” them.
The only way that Hughes could not cause such harm would be to stay silent on her criticism of the movement. This is a matter that runs to the very core of her writings as an academic and identity as a feminist. I am glad that the university has not taken to fire Hughes or Loomis. However, this official condemnation raises serious concerns over free speech and academic freedom. I have no problem with President David Dooley speaking in his individual capacity against Hughes or writing a counter essay addressing her various points of criticism. However, he chose to have the university as a whole condemn an academic for expressing her objections to LGBTQ writings from her own feminist perspective.
The silence of other faculty at the university to support their colleague’s rights to free speech and academic freedom is, again, deafening.