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A fresh assault on free expression

Editor's note: The Faculty Perspectives Page is an outlet for faculty expression provided by the Senate Assembly. Any member of the University Senate is eligible to submit a Faculty Perspectives essay. Prospective contributors are invited to contact the Faculty Perspectives Page Committee at faculty.perspectives. Submissions are accepted in electronic form and are subject to review by the committee. Essay lengths are restricted to one full printed page in The University Record, or about 1,500 words. Past Faculty Perspectives can be accessed through the Faculty Governance Web page at


On Sept. 25, an e-mail was sent to hundreds of people at the University, inviting them to participate in a conference on the Palestinian Solidarity Movement. The e-mail falsely characterized the conference as being sponsored by the University; it falsely claimed to have been sent with the help of University staff; and it criticized Israel in language that offended many recipients. The e-mail appears to have been a forgery: the student whom it identified as the sender vehemently denies having sent it, and it was not sent from his University e-mail account. At this writing, the true sender remains unidentified.

This e-mail prompted a statement to the faculty from Provost Paul N. Courant, and a statement to the entire community from President Mary Sue Coleman. These statements corrected the false claims made in the e-mail and pointed out that, even if it weren’t a forgery, it still would violate University policies on the appropriate use of information technology. On these issues, what the provost and president said was clearly right: political tracts should not be forced on hundreds of unwilling recipients via campus e-mail, and they shouldn’t misrepresent themselves as carrying the endorsement of the University. But the provost and president went on to address the content and language of the e-mail in remarks that raise important questions about freedom of expression in campus debate. These questions call for further discussion, which I hope to initiate here.

I’ll begin by discussing the e-mail currently at issue. Then I’ll turn to the general topic of civility in campus discourse. Finally, I’ll propose a policy for dealing with such incidents in the future.

Because I will be discussing the text of the e-mail in some detail, and because the list of recipients was small in relation to the size of the campus (though larger than is permitted by the rules of responsible use for electronic mail), I think it is important to make the relevant part of the text available to readers of this article, so that they can evaluate it for themselves. The University Record refused to reprint the text of the e-mail as a sidebar to this article, and so I quote the central passage here.

“The time has come, and enough is enough. For almost 55 years now, Jews in Palestine have systematically destroyed the lives of the indigenous Palestinians who had lived there for hundreds of years. It is time for us to speak out and be heard, and you can be a part of this revolution!

“We, as the Students Allied for Freedom and Equality, will not remain silent while the Israeli S.S. Nazis destroy the homes of poor Palestinians who have no choice but to respond through what others call ‘terrorism,’ but we call ‘justified resistance.’ Help us speak out against the Israeli Apartheid! With your help, we can bring down the Zionist country, and thereby rid the world of another racist country, just as we (the Academic community) rid the world of Apartheid South Africa only 20 years ago.”

The relevant portion of the president’s statement about the current incident is this:

“Although we defend the right to freedom of expression, we also have a responsibility to vehemently dispute speech that is incompatible with our principles and beliefs. The e-mail contained language that was deeply offensive and hurtful to me and to many others in our community, and I condemn it. This country’s history teaches us that ugly speech is best neutralized with other voices and more speech. I ask for your collective support in maintaining civil and respectful campus dialogue on important issues.”

Similar remarks about civility and respect were contained in the statement from the provost. In my view, such remarks do not correctly express the norms that should govern discourse on campus.

In interpreting the president’s remarks, we must keep in mind that they were initially distributed under the headings “From: President Mary Sue Coleman” and “To: University Community.,” via a mass-mailing program available only to members of the central administration. The remarks also were issued in a press release by the Office of News and Information Services, and they are posted on the University’s Web site under a letterhead bearing the official seal of the University and the words “Office of the President.” Thus, the personal tone of these remarks cannot be interpreted to mean that they are a personal statement by Mary Sue Coleman, private citizen; they are an official statement by the president, speaking on behalf of the institution.

Now, I assume that the president was hurt and offended by the e-mail at issue because of what it would have meant as an expression of someone’s opinion. Of course, if the e-mail was a forgery, as it seems to have been, then it may not have expressed the opinion of any actual person—either the victim or the forger—in which case, it would be offensive primarily for being fraudulent. But the president’s remarks make clear that she was responding to what the e-mail purported to say, leaving aside the possibility that her target might, in reality, be a mere impersonation of someone’s saying it.

Suppose, then, that the e-mail expressed the opinions of its author, whoever he was. Would its content or language merit condemnation by the president of the University? I think not. I understand why many readers would take offense at the e-mail under the supposition of its expressing an opinion. But a careful study of the text shows that neither the opinions expressed under that supposition, nor the language used to express them, are such as can reasonably be ruled out of bounds. Let me take a moment to consider the details of the text.

As far as I can tell, there are four parts of the e-mail that could be described as “ugly” or “deeply offensive.” The clearest case is a reference made in the e-mail to “Israeli S.S. Nazis.” Obviously, supporters of Israel cannot help but feel grievously wounded by the comparison of Israelis to the murderers of Jews. But the proposition that there are similarities between the treatment of Palestinians under Israeli occupation and the treatment of Jews under Nazism is a substantive moral proposition of a kind that we cannot rule out of order, however heatedly we may wish to dispute it. Whether Israeli policy bears appropriate witness to the lessons of the Holocaust, or flouts those lessons instead, is a vital question on which conscientious observers disagree. To compare Israel to Nazi Germany is to give an extreme but not impermissible answer to this question—an answer on which the University is in no position to pass official judgment.

Another potentially offensive part of the e-mail is the suggestion that what many call terrorism on the part of Palestinians is in fact “justified resistance.” Extreme as this suggestion may be, it is part of an important debate about the permissibility of political violence. Whether suicide bombings are “justified resistance” is a question that needs to be discussed on campus, not settled in advance by presidential proclamation.

A third potentially offensive part of the message is a call “to bring down the Zionist country,” which might be interpreted as a call for the expulsion of Israelis from their homeland. Actually, the e-mail compares the envisioned end of a Jewish state to the end of the apartheid regime in South Africa, which brought political change without any significant displacement of populations. Hence the phrase at issue can be interpreted as a call for political change in the Middle East—perhaps the replacement of a Jewish state with a secular democracy, or an Islamic theocracy, or whatever. But even if the e-mail had advocated expelling the Jews from Israel, it would represent a political position that, however extreme, should not be subject to official condemnation by the University. How the population of the Middle East should be composed and distributed has been the subject of dispute for over a century. On this dispute, the University of Michigan can have no official position.

The fourth and final instance of potentially offensive language in the e-mail is the reference to “Jews in Palestine,” a reference that may appear to be an ethnic slur against Jews as such. But the fact is that “Jews in Palestine” is a politically and legally significant category. Israeli law confers rights on Jews in Israel and the occupied territories that it does not confer on other inhabitants of the same region. The category “Jews in Palestine” is not the figment of an anti-Semitic imagination: it is a political and legal reality. The grievances of the Palestinians are directed against that reality—that is, against the distinctions drawn by Israeli law between Jews and others in the region. The phrase “Jews in Palestine” is a legitimate means of expressing those grievances, irrespective of whether there is any merit in the grievances themselves. And whether there is any merit in them is not for the University to say.

In sum, whatever pain this e-mail would cause, if genuine, it would cause in the course of expressing opinions that could not be expressed in painless terms. The situation in the Middle East is unbearably painful; it gives rise to opinions that are unbearably painful. The role of a university is to serve as a neutral forum for the expression of such opinions—and to bear the pain.

Even if the language of this e-mail were more inflammatory than necessary for the expression of the author’s views (assuming, again, that it expressed the views of an author), it would not warrant official condemnation by the University. I would argue, in fact, that pleas for “civil and respectful campus dialogue” are ill-advised. Let me turn, then, to a discussion of civility on campus.

Like many civil libertarians, I believe that there is such a thing as civil incivility—incivility that is civil in the same sense as civil disobedience. It counts as incivility because it involves rude, insulting or otherwise obnoxious speech or behavior; it counts as civil because it falls within the terms of the social contract, which comprises the ground-rules that would be rational for us to adopt to govern our dealings with one another.

In my view, rational citizens would prefer rules of debate that allow for uncivil forms of expression, under some circumstances, to rules that require civility at all times. There are some degrees of outrage that cannot adequately be expressed except in outrageous terms; shocking language is sometimes needed to shock people out of their complacency; provocative behavior is sometimes needed to provoke coy opponents into responding. A rational citizen will want access to these forms of expression, and being exposed to their use by others is a rational price to pay. Even if the e-mail at issue were genuine, the offense that it would give is of a kind that a rational citizen would want the right to give, in extreme circumstances, and which, in a cool hour, he would agree to bear as the price of that right.

Of course, the resulting social contract wouldn’t allow for indiscriminate use of incivility: we need not tolerate offensive behavior aimed solely at giving offense. But the situation in the Middle East, and the state of American opinion about it, can be regarded as an extreme circumstance of the sort that calls for outrage and shock. Hence the topic of the offending e-mail can reasonably be claimed to justify civil incivility.

President Coleman supports her plea for civility by citing the diversity of our campus. I suggest that the educational rationale for diversity favors a different approach.

In order for the diversity of our campus to yield its intended benefits, students of different backgrounds need to interact in ways that cannot help but be upsetting. There is no point in bringing disparate groups together only to paper over their mutual ignorance and suspicion: these sources of division need to be exposed, and in order to be exposed, they have to be expressed. Students need to say what they are thinking about one another, so that they can prod one another to think differently, and so that they can learn together how to overcome mutual prejudice. This process will unavoidably involve misunderstandings and hurt feelings. Telling people how to live together doesn’t teach any lasting lessons: they have to learn by trial and error, and when it comes to relations among the races and religions, error is bound to be painful.

In my view, the University has been trying to get the educational gain of diversity without the pain. It gathers a diverse body of students and then inhibits them from interacting freely by insisting that their interactions be utterly inoffensive. In short, our campus suffers from an excess of civility. Conversations that ought to be taking place are not taking place because people are afraid of giving offense. Under the circumstances, calls for civility are counterproductive.

In light of these considerations, I propose that the University administration commit itself to a policy of not responding to individual cases of offensive speech. Every year or two, for a decade or more, the administration has found itself condemning some e-mail or piece of graffiti that has offended members of the community. This practice unavoidably stifles debate.

If you doubt whether debate has been stifled by the present incident, just try the following thought-experiment. Suppose you believe that Ariel Sharon is responsible for war crimes, as has frequently been claimed since his 1981 campaign in Lebanon. How should you express your view? The president of the University, signing herself as president and using the powers and symbols of her office, has publicly denounced a message expressing views closely related to yours. Would you run the risk of a similar denunciation if you compared Ariel Sharon to Hitler? What if you compared him to Saddam Hussein or Slobodan Milosevic instead? Can you even call him a war criminal or do you need to find a less inflammatory phrase? What exactly can you say about the Prime Minister of Israel without becoming the target of mass mailings and press releases from the administration? Surely, such questions might occur to you, especially if you are student or an untenured member of the faculty, and the very fact that they might occur shows that you have been inhibited from participating in debate.

The same questions would probably not occur to you if it were Saddam Hussein whom you thought of comparing to Hitler—which goes to show that the chilling effect of the administration’s messages falls unequally on different points of view. Despite the good intentions behind these messages, they unavoidably place the power and prestige of high University office behind one side of an ongoing political debate. Official intervention of this kind in substantive discussions is not compatible with academic values.

If the administration must respond to cases of offensive speech, it should confine itself to the following:

Statements made in University forums do not represent the views of the University, and the University cannot comment on them without compromising its commitment to diversity and intellectual freedom.

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