The University of MichiganNews & Information services
The University Record Online
search Updated: 5:00 p.m. EDT -- 21 October 2002


news briefs


UM employment

police beat
regents round-up
research reporter


Advertise with Record

contact us

contact us

To the Editor:

I write to comment on Prof. J. David Velleman's essay "A fresh assault on free expression" in the Oct. 7 University Record because I believe his viewsboth on the appropriate role of the University in protecting free speech and on the recent statement of President Mary Sue Coleman regarding an inflammatory e-mailare seriously mistaken.

Prof. Velleman writes that although the e-mail, which contains such references as "the Israeli S.S. Nazis," may cause pain, "the role of the University is to serve as a neutral forum for the expression of such opinionsand to bear the pain." He characterizes President Coleman's comments as a "presidential proclamation" which "rule[s] out of order" the opinions expressed in the e-mail, and suggests that such presidential statements may inhibit debate.

While a university may exist in part to provide a forum in which individuals can debate, it is odd to suggest that a university's leaders are disqualified to participate in such debate, and to express opinions both on the substantive issues in the debate and on the manner in which the debate is being conducted. Such participation can clarify issues, enhance effective communication, and perhaps even provide a degree of intellectual and moral leadership, which does not seem beyond a university's legitimate mission.

It is no doubt true that universities and governmental institutions can behave in ways which truly
inhibit debate; unfortunate examples abound throughout the world: Citizens can be imprisoned, they can be killed, they can be fired, they can be exiled or expelled. But to suggest that a university president who, while properly allowing a controversial conference to occur on campus, is behaving inappropriately when she expresses honestly held views concerning important issues, is to stretch the concept of inhibition beyond any useful meaning. Clearly, for example, the fact that President Coleman expressed her views did not inhibit Prof. Velleman from writing and publishing his essay. President Coleman "proclaimed" nothing and "ruled" nothing out of order; she merely exercised the same freedom of speech which Prof. Velleman has exercised and properly wishes to preserve for others.

People can and should feel free to disagree with the views of university officials, and to use intemperate and pain-producing language in so doing if they wish. I expect that a university president would often be delighted with disagreement since it would mean that someone had actually been listening. I hope, however, that universities would reject the view that their leaders are obligated to remain silent.

Jerold Lax
LS&A 1963
Associate professor emeritus of urban planning

More stories