At the University of Chicago: Was It Free Speech, or Harassment?

To the Editor:

Re “Has a Line Been Crossed?” (news article, July 4):

“The Problem of Whiteness” is undoubtedly a provocative name for a college anthropology seminar on “how the racial category ‘white’ has changed over time.”

But there’s zero evidence that the teacher of the University of Chicago course, Rebecca Journey, is prejudiced against white people. She seems to be a smart academic trying to get her students to think clearly.

Yet on two separate occasions an antagonistic undergraduate used social media to stir up hatred toward the professor — not over the course itself (which hadn’t yet been given), but over its title.

Dr. Journey received abusive mail and threats. She postponed the course for the quarter, and it was finally offered under strict safety procedures. The university, sticking to its long and proudly held stand on the sanctity of free speech, presented the course, but refused to discipline the combative student.

Of course, the good side of the story is that we owe the controversialist, Daniel Schmidt — who, by the way, has also at times associated himself with a Holocaust denier — our thanks for helping us better understand the problem of whiteness.

Lawrence Houghteling
Ruxton, Md.

To the Editor:

Freedom of speech relies on mutual respect, and Daniel Schmidt’s complaint against Rebecca Journey’s course denied her free speech from the start. How can anyone see subjecting a professor to online outrage as free speech, but teaching a course that never expresses anti-white hatred as hate speech?

Mr. Schmidt never “exposed” anything; the administration was already aware of Dr. Journey’s course and approved it. Mr. Schmidt posted Dr. Journey’s photo and email address not because they added to his argument, but because they invited direct and unproductive harassment against this professor.

The University of Chicago needs to take action against Mr. Schmidt, if not for the hypocritical upbraiding of a course about which he is uninformed, then for initiating a cyberattack against a professor.

Camille H. Davis
New York

To the Editor:

Geoffrey R. Stone, the law professor who led the drafting of the widely adopted Chicago statement supporting free speech on campus, reportedly claims that nothing can be done about Daniel Schmidt’s actions because it’s too difficult to distinguish between them and newspaper reporting.

I don’t see what’s so difficult. If contact information is disseminated about an individual, be it an email address, a phone number or a street address, it’s not reporting. It’s doxxing. Simple.

David Friedman
St. James, N.Y.

To the Editor:

I was struck by how a wildly unproductive cycle of phony outrage and course rescheduling could have been avoided if the course had just been titled more accurately. I don’t know if Rebecca Journey was simply careless or trying to increase interest in her course through false advertising, but surely nothing was gained by giving cynical troublemakers a chance to pretend to misunderstand what it was about.

It took me about 30 seconds to come up with “The Problems of Defining Whiteness,” “The Ambiguity of Whiteness” or “The Fluidity of Whiteness” as more authentic titles. I’m rather stunned that nobody there thought of something similar and successfully presented it to Dr. Journey as a way to help her end a truly senseless controversy in time for the course to be taught.

To borrow a word from the article, if Dr. Journey has prepared a solid, interesting course, it doesn’t need a “provocative” title inconsistent with its content.

Dallas Lea
Alexandria, La.

To the Editor:

The discussions described in your article about the student whose social media posts led to attacks on a professor for offering a course on “whiteness” seem to focus on rules: whether there is, or should be, a rule against what the student did.

But surely rules are not the only way to approach this problem. A community such as a university should reserve some power to devise a remedy, as needed, for an unanticipated problem.

In this case, after the student’s social media posts led to widespread bullying of the professor, the university might have told him that his actions did not contribute to academic discussion, and that if future posts by the student led to repeated bullying, the student would be disciplined.

The student would then have fair notice, and the presence or absence of a particular rule related to his conduct would yield to the actual effect of his conduct and his compliance with the school’s warning.

Michael Winger
New York

To the Editor:

The case of so-called cyberbullying at the University of Chicago raises some very difficult issues, quite different from the recent free speech debates at Stanford and the University of Pennsylvania. I applaud The Times for giving the issue of academic freedom this extended consideration.

One crucial component of free expression, intrinsic to its realization at educational institutions, seems to be missing from the way many people write about it. A university is not a town square, where everyone gets a soapbox and a square meter from which to speak their mind, nor a libertarian zone in some lowest common denominator civil society.

Educational institutions are ethical communities, whose members have duties both to each other and to themselves. In particular, where free expression is concerned, we have a duty not only to allow others to speak but in specific situations also to listen. We have a duty to ourselves to seek to understand.

The shame of many recent cases seems to be that speech is protested before it even occurs. We shouldn’t be afraid to hear.

Clifford Ando
The writer is a professor of history and the chair of the classics department at the University of Chicago.

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