February 09, 2008
Selective veiling of free speech?
I'm a bit concerned about the new president of Bryn Mawr College. From today's Inquirer:
An internationally known scholar of Islamic studies whose expertise is in the Quran and relations between Islam and Christianity was selected as the eighth president of Bryn Mawr College yesterday.That's all fine and good for those who believe in multiculturalism, and I suppose interfaith dialogue is OK as long as it doesn't reach the point of advocating Sharia Law -- which it has in England under Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury. I point out this concern only because Williams has worked with Bryn Mawr's new dean on his 'Building Bridges' seminar in Qatar.
I have nothing against building bridges in Qatar, nor against Islamic Studies. In fact, I'd probably find the subject very interesting, as I love history and I'm fascinated by religion. I'm worried, though, by a couple of things.
First, Bryn Mawr is one of those places with a history of restrictions on speech (in the form of draconian "speech codes," as well as worrisome "orientation" sessions bordering on out-and-out indoctrination):
...Bryn Mawr probed the most private experiences of every first-year student: difference and discomfort; racial, ethnic, and class experiences; sexual orientation; religious beliefs. By the end of this "orientation," students were devising "individual and collective action plans" for "breaking free" of "the cycle of oppression" and for achieving "new meaning" as "change agents." Although the public relations savvy of universities has changed since the early 1990s, these programs proliferate apace.My concern is heightened by the fact that when she was in Toronto, Bryn Mawr's new president testified as a witness against a Christian minister who was ultimately convicted of criminal hate speech:
In recent years, hate crime convictions have become more frequent in this country as public and legal awareness have increased. In 1998, Mark Harding of Toronto was convicted for "promoting hatred against an identifiable group contrary to s.319(2) of the Criminal Code." Prof. Jane McAuliffe of the University of Toronto, an expert witness called by the Crown, said "there is no legitimate support in the Qur'an or Islamic religious doctrine for the position that Islam advocates violence."What Mark Harding did was to hand out pamphlets criticizing Islam -- the sort of thing that Americans take for granted as a protected First Amendment activity:
The offending pamphlets discussed Islamic societies around the world where "Muslims are torturing, maiming, starving and killing Christians" simply because of their faith. Harding argues that Islam "is full of hate and violence," and that its holy books teach that it "will always be at war" with other religions. "Once a state becomes an Islamic state, no other religion is tolerated," he says.The government obviously disagreed, and Harding was convicted -- with the help of Bryn Mawr's new president.
Regular readers know that I am 100% opposed to any "hate speech" laws or restrictions. Aside from the obvious First Amendment issues, one of the reasons is that there is no way to define hate. We all hate a lot of things, and the idea of criminalizing "hate" is absurd, and invites double standards.
Would President McAuliffe consider this hate speech, for example?
How about anti-homosexual passages from Islamic texts? This is no idle question, and I'm surprised that some of Bryn Mawr's political activists don't raise it.
If they wanted to ask Dean McAuliffe about double standards, they might start by asking why, for example, she would on the one hand testify against a Christian cleric accused of anti-Muslim remarks while she was in Canada, and then exhibit a far different attitude towards anti-homosexual remarks -- by another Christian cleric in the United States. Unlike Rev. Harding, he didn't stand around handing out leaflets, but she selected him to deliver Georgetown's commencement address:
For ears tuned for a commencement address, what came later was much less familiar. Where graduates might have expected congratulations and warm counsel, they received, quite simply, a sermon. "In many parts of the world, the family is under siege," said Arinze, at the climax of his speech. "It is opposed by anti-life mentality as is seen in contraception, abortion, infanticide and euthanasia. It is scorned and banalized by pornography; desecrated by fornication and adultery; mocked by homosexuality, sabotaged by irregular unions and cut into two by divorce."Others walked out, and a huge controversy followed. Eventually there was a meeting with angry faculty members, and the predictable charge of "hate speech":
McAuliffe's introduction of Arinze at the ceremony confirms that impression. She spoke at length about his expertise in "seeking cooperation and relations with those of other faiths" and the "complex backdrop of interactions between Muslims and Christians across Subsaharan Africa." She closed by nailing home the significance of having a specialist in Muslim-Christian relations speak to a group of American university graduates: "We look to the leadership of Cardinal Arinze as a voice for the Catholic Church in envisioning the secure peace towards which the world must work."There's a lot more, and it just smells of a double standard that someone who testified as a witness in a criminal hate speech trial for pampheteering in Canada would later defend a commencement address she sponsored which would probably be considered hate speech under the Canadian standard. (Or is there a need for "dialogue" here, but not in Canada?)
I'm of course a fierce advocate of free speech, and I think both Harding and Arinze have just as much right to freely criticize gays and Muslims as the latter have to criticize them. That's the whole idea.
What concerns me here is the double standard involved.
And what kind of standard is honors for Arinze, but jail for Harding?
I think the best way to build bridges and have honest and open dialogue is to respect all free speech -- be it pro or anti gay, pro or anti Muslim, pro or anti Christian, and yes, even pro or anti "diversity," and pro or anti "multiculturalism."
I hope my concerns are unfounded in the case of Bryn Mawr's new president, but I worry that the possible overemphasis on multiculturalism and diversity carries with it a growing threat to free speech.
(To say nothing of that subset of free speech we call "academic freedom.")
UPDATE: My thanks to Glenn Reynolds for the link, and a warm welcome to all.
Agree or disagree, I appreciate the comments.
MORE: As there's been some discussion of Bryn Mawr's speech code (which is technically called the "Honor Code") in the comments, I thought it was worth taking a closer look.
Reading through the text of code, it is so vague that I'm not sure it was fair of me to characterize it as "draconian" because it does not spell out how exactly how it is to be be applied under all circumstances. It certainly could be applied in a very draconian manner -- and to almost anything -- with penalties including expulsion.
From the text:
We recognize that acts of discrimination and harassment, including, but not limited to, acts of racism, homophobia, classism, ableism, and discrimination against religious and political minorities are devoid of respect and therefore, by definition, violate this Code.What, exactly, constitutes "discrimination"? What is harassment? I notice that "discrimination against religious and political minorities" is prohibited, but not discrimination against a religious or political majority. Which means that presumably, a Muslim (or perhaps a Republican) could bring charges, but not a Christian (or perhaps not a secularist) -- depending on what constitutes a majority.
As to what is actionable, another provision of the code defines it as whatever might "offend" any student:
a. If a student is offended by the actions of another student, either personally or because she believes them to be detrimental to the community, she must confront the student directly as the first step toward conflict resolution. This conversation must take place in person unless the option is not available (i.e. the student is abroad). Confrontation is not a hostile action. The two students should engage in a constructive discussion to try and reach a common understanding. This does not imply an agreement but an "exchange of values" or "expression of concerns" which results in a viable solution for both parties. An Honor Board member may act on behalf of another student if this process would place the student involved in physical danger. In the case of an Honor Board member assisting in the confrontation, a clear line of communication must be maintained between the students involved in the confrontation.I suppose that if I were a Bryn Mawr student, and another student was "offended" by this blog post, I could first be "confronted," and if the "exchange of values" or "expression of concerns" did not satisfy the other student, a board could be convened with power to expel me.
The standard seems to be along the lines of "If you offend me, I can have you expelled."
Saying that anyone can be expelled for anything strikes me as a horribly vague standard, and a very broad one, with no notice of what is allowed, but with the ever-lurking possibility of boards, hearings, and possible expulsion.
If I were a Bryn Mawr student, I'd probably have to resort to anonymity.
UPDATE: I have another post here about President McAuliffe's views and interfaith dialogue.
posted by Eric on 02.09.08 at 10:08 AM
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