Board Challenges Academic Freedom

Roger Copeland, Professor of Theater and Dance

To the Editors:

In a March 5 email to members of the Oberlin students and faculty, Clyde McGregor, OC ’74, and chair of the College’s Board of Trustees, expresses the Board’s’ collective concern over allegedly anti-Semitic postings on social media by an Oberlin faculty member. The Trustees call upon “the administration and faculty to challenge the assertion that there is any justification for these repugnant postings and to report back to the Board.” Needless to say, I speak only for myself. But what follows is my own preliminary “report back to the Board.”

I would like to begin by reminding Mr. McGregor that no individual employee of Oberlin College “speaks” for the institution. In fact, I’m not even sure the Board of Trustees can be said to “speak” for the College at-large. And in this particular instance, I sincerely hope they do not.

Now, it goes without saying that Oberlin College neither endorses nor practices antiSemitism. Indeed, it strikes me as more than a bit redundant to write — as Mr. McGregor does — that the postings in question are “anti-Semitic” and “abhorrent.” Most reasonable people believe that anti-Semitism is, by definition, inherently “abhorrent.” But gratuitous moral grandstanding aside, I have no objection to a statement from the Board decrying all forms of anti-Semitism as “abhorrent” and inconsistent with Oberlin College’s core values. But it’s another matter entirely for Mr. McGregor and the Board to publicly call upon the administration and the faculty to “challenge the assertion that there is any justification for these repugnant postings.” This strikes me as a direct challenge not only to bigotry and hatred but also to any meaningful definition of academic freedom — a concept expressly designed to protect even the most “abhorrent” ideas a faculty member might espouse. Granted, the Facebook postings in question are so outlandish that even a certifiably paranoid conspiracy theorist like Alex Jones would probably wonder whether the provocateur in question isn’t just rattling our collective cages. Then again, in the final analysis, it doesn’t really matter whether she believes the “content” of her postings (anti-Semitism in air-quotes is still anti-Semitism). But, like it or not, this sort of hateful speech is still protected speech.

Even though Oberlin is a private rather than a public institution, there are only a very limited set of circumstances in which either the College (or the courts) can penalize a faculty member for her “extra-mural” utterances, especially when the content of those utterances concern public matters: politics, foreign policy, etc.

To be more specific, unless the objectionable messages pose a “clear and present danger” of inciting “imminent lawless action,” the author has every right — as both a U.S. citizen and a member of Oberlin’s faculty — to publicly post whatever crackpot ravings her conspiratorially challenged mind can cook up, no matter how hateful or idiotic. Curiously, the Board’s statement concludes as follows: “From its founding, Oberlin College has stood for inclusion, respect and tolerance. We still do.” But if Mr. McGregor and his fellow Board members really believe those fine-sounding words, they should show a bit more “respect” and “tolerance” for a concept without which higher education simply ceases to exist: academic freedom. The protections inherent in that concept mean nothing unless they extend to ideas that the community at large finds abhorrent. By publicly challenging the very “justification” for a faculty member’s extra-mural utterances — no matter how abhorrent those utterances may be — the Board of Trustees is perpetuating the very sort of “chilling effect” on public speech that academic freedom was originally intended to protect against.

Yours sincerely,

Roger Copeland
Professor of Theater and Dance