November 10, 2008

Free Speech Under Assault at Texas Community College

A photo by Hans Olde from the photographic ser...Image via WikipediaAs a college professor and an atheist, you can imagine how sensitive I am to issues of free speech in academia. Failing to protect free speech in such an environment seriously undermines the mission of higher education. And yet, the assault on this basic freedom at our nation's universities is nothing new. In this post, I will address a disturbing case from Temple College, a community college in Texas, that may be of particular interest to my readers.

Kerry Laird, a first-year professor of literature and composition, was recently reprimanded for placing a sign that said "Gott ist tot" (German for "God is dead") on his office door. Astute readers may recognize this as one of Friedrich Nietzsche’s most famous quotes.

The college has informed Laird that he may not post this quote on his door on the grounds that it might be offensive to some. Laird and many of his colleagues see this as a violation of academic freedom.

According to Inside Higher Ed,
He [Laird] said that, as a student and instructor, he always enjoyed the way professors use their office doors to reveal bits of their personality and to challenge students with cartoons, artwork, and various phrases. So when he started at Temple, he put a cartoon up showing Smokey the Bear, a girl scout and a boy scout and the tag line: “Kids — don’t fuck with God or bears will eat you.” He received a complaint and decided that he understood why the college “might not want the f-word” in the hallway, and so he decided to put up something else.

This time he turned to Nietzsche and, striving to challenge while being more subtle, he only used the German version of the quote, not the English translation. “I didn’t want to be too blunt,” he said.
Was it appropriate for Laird to place a cartoon containing the word "fuck" on his office door? Probably not. I wouldn't have done it. It is harder to make an argument that a word commonly considered profane falls under academic freedom, although I suspect such an argument could be made. After all, Laird's students and colleagues are adults.

But the Nietzsche quote, in German or English, strikes me as very different. It has literary value and overwhelming cultural familiarity in that nearly everyone will have heard it. To say that a college professor may not use a quote that can be found in any book of great quotations is absurd.

When Interim Vice President of Educational Services, Mark A. Smith, demanded that the quote be removed, he offered the following rationale:
Temple College as a public institution cannot be represented as showing preference toward any religious philosophy/perspective or toward the opposite, being atheism. The same practice goes for politics. The decision to have the quote removed was that the quote can be considered very controversial and offensive to others. In fact, other people have already expressed that the wording is offensive!
According to Smith, a professor has the right to discuss such a quote in class but not to have it displayed on his/her door. Does this mean that professors who want to display pro-religion messages or religious symbols on their doors would also be asked to remove them? Evidently not, at least not according to the students at Temple. Smith's explanation? Nobody has complained about the Christian quotes.

I think there just might be a new addition to my office door tomorrow.

Updated 11/11/08: It turns out that this one had a happy ending, thanks to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

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