Brandeis Hires University Defender to Teach about ‘Racially Harassing Speech’
September 22, 2008
by Adam Kissel
Brandeis University seems to be moving even farther away from any notion of guaranteeing free expression on its campus. In the wake of a breakdown in faculty–administration relations over the case of Brandeis professor Donald Hindley, Brandeis has hired an attorney whose principal work involves defending universities against lawsuits and claims in areas such as civil rights. The attorney, Daryl Lapp, is to make a presentation to the faculty on September 25 on "the legal definition and boundaries of racially harassing speech and the implications of case law on this subject."
Free expression advocates should be alarmed if this is the only view of "racially harassing speech" that faculty members are going to hear. The school's Committee on Faculty Rights and Responsibilities has made clear that the definition of harassment used against Hindley—who was found guilty of racial harassment after he critiqued the term "wetbacks" in class—was a violation of his academic freedom that threatened the academic freedom of all faculty and students at Brandeis. Provost Marty Krauss made matters worse when she suggested that the examples listed in Brandeis' policy as possibly contributing to hostile environment harassment, in themselves and out of context, were de facto evidence of harassment.
Hiring a defender of universities to provide more of the same? That's a recipe for more, not fewer, violations of academic freedom on campus. We hope that Lapp sticks to the law and respects the principles of free expression that have been, for instance, expressed on this subject by the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights. But we are concerned because such training sessions tend to scare professors into restricting their speech in order to avoid investigations and worse, such as what Professor Hindley faced. Here is what FIRE co-founder and Board of Directors Chair Harvey Silverglate had to say when a Harvard task force on women faculty suggested something like this in 2005 (link added):
The task force on women faculty also recommends that faculty and staff undergo mandatory sexual harassment training. It is revealing that Harvard refers to these programs as "training" rather than dress them up as "education" as some universities do (and as the report does elsewhere). Orwellian language games can't conceal the true nature of these programs, which attempt to coerce participants into identifying themselves as either victims or oppressors. Like "implicit bias training," sexual harassment training is a species of thought-reform intended to amplify hostility towards ideas or attitudes deemed offensive. And as President Summers is doubtless acutely aware, even the most innocuous comment can be interpreted as offensive when everyone on both left and right seems on hair-trigger alert for offense.
This indeed is the environment at Brandeis. We will let you know what happens next.