The University Record, March 1, 1993

Stimpson: Don’t rely on state to be guardian of free speech

By Mary Jo Frank

“Good speech must drive out bad, including the bad speech of the boorish, cruel and obstinate,” asserts Rutgers University Prof. Catharine Stimpson.

Affirming her support of intellectual and academic freedom, Stimpson said educators must educate themselves about the frustrations and pain that drive good people to argue for constrictions on the First Amendment.

“Educators must obey a protocol of hard, careful listening as well as the principle of freely speaking. They must hear the victims’ stories and understand why some victims are cynical about the First Amendment.

“If educators do not,” Stimpson said, “our advocacy of free speech, no matter how self-convincing, will be rote litanies that lack persuasion.”

The former president of the Modern Language Association presented the third annual Davis, Markert, Nickerson Lecture on Academic and Intellectual Freedom to the University Senate and others Feb. 18.

Two of the three former faculty members whom the lecture honors—Chandler Davis and Clement L. Markert—were in the audience of 250 faculty, staff, students and retirees. Mark Nickerson was unable to attend because of an illness in his family. In 1954 all three refused to answer inquiries of the House Committee on Un-American Activities and were subsequently suspended from the U-M.

Stimpson said that “historically notorious assaults on artistic, intellectual and academic freedom continue in the United States and without.” The censors: church, state, and, to a far lesser degree, the university.

The history of freedom of speech warns against relying naively on the state as guardian, she said, adding that “getting in bed with the state can be worse than getting in bed with an elephant. It is more like rolling around with a dull-bladed but slashing guillotine.”

The university of the 1990s is generating even greater ferment of ideas than it did in the early 1970s when she was embroiled in a fight for tenure, reported Stimpson, whose professional interests are in culture, literature, women’s studies and education.

“Whether new ideas cross disciplinary borders or stay within them, these novelties put great demands on people’s capacity for fair academic judgments,” Stimpson noted.

Traditionalists react against and suspect the new. The carriers of the new react against and suspect traditionalists.

“When this ‘Battle of the Books’ occurs, both camps can ignore academic freedom, an earnest referee whistling away on the sidelines,” she said.