Let me state upfront. Civility should never be a standard for freedom of speech. The state should not punish people for engaging in “uncivil” speech and those who engage in “uncivil” speech deserve the protection of the law. If there are any exceptions I can’t think of them right now.

Let me also state upfront. It was wrong for the U of I system to “non-hire” Steven Salaita for the incivility of his tweets, etc. It was wrong on procedural grounds. An excellent case is to be made that when the department invited him “pending approval of the Board of Trustees,” that approval was intended to be pro forma. It was also wrong because the U of I system is a public institution, and a public institution ought to have a darn good reason when it discriminates against a prospective employee’s speech without a showing that that prospect’s speech would negatively affect his or her job performance. And the Board of Trustees, as far as I know, made no finding that Mr. Salaita’s incivility would affect his teaching. If I am wrong, please provide me evidence and if the evidence is compelling, I’ll revise my objection as to the Board’s finding but probably not to the procedural grounds.

But with that out of the way, when it comes to academic speech civility can be a legitimate restriction.

Most university professors play three roles. They teach. They participate in shared governance, such as committee work. And they perform scholarship through publishing, giving public lectures, participating at conferences, authoring blogs, making themselves available for interviews on documentaries, and doing other things.

In that last role, when they speak they are speaking ex academia. When they speak ex academia, they speak from within the bounds set by their institution, by members of their department, and by members of their discipline, such as those who edit and referee the journals, create conferences, and comment on public statements made in the general area of their discipline.

Those “bounds” or standards are many and they evolve over time. A historian today who states that antebellum slaves in the United States were basically happy and loved and were well-served by their masters is transgressing a pretty solid boundary. If that historian makes such an argument and hasn’t the evidence to back it up or doesn’t at least make the necessary qualifications about the nature of slavery or the difficulties of the type of evidence that is available, he or she will be shunned out of what is considered acceptable for the profession.

If that person is an emeritus/a, they* might be smiled at as a crank or curmudgeon. If that person is a tenured professor, they might find themselves invited to or accepted by fewer journals or conferences. If that person is a tenure-track scholar and their argument about slavery is pretty much the sum total of all they’re about when they speak ex academia, they may very well be denied tenure unless they’re a superstar (or at least hardworking and willing) teacher or the “committee martyr” type that seems to exist in medium- to large-sized academic departments. If that person is a junior scholar, he or she will have a pretty hard time getting hired. The departments will take that speech into account, especially if speaking ex academia is a big part of the job.

That particular “standard” is not a civility standard. It’s also not a firm standard. But it is a standard nonetheless. The literature on the essential violence that was chattel slavery in the U.S. is so broadly accepted that at the very least anyone who claims there were some benefits for the slaves (such as Fogel and Engerman, whose book I have not read but about which there is a Wikipedia article here) must acknowledge it and either (unlikely) refute it or (more likely) find certain benefits that coexisted with the violence.

That example risks violating an American version of Godwin’s Law. And to be clear, I think an outright denial of the essential violence of slavery is akin to the outright denial of the scale of mass-murder executed by any mid-twentieth century despot. And to be further clear, I also realize that such a case is a marginal one. But my goal is only (or mostly) to demonstrate that a standard exists and legitimately so. And I don’t think many will disagree in the abstract. And if they do, I’d concede that disagreeing in the abstract about even such propositions often falls in within the bounds set by any given discipline.

But enough meta. What does this have to do with civility? This: It’s possible that enough members of a discipline can decide on certain standards of argumentation deemed acceptable for speaking ex academia that invoke something like treating interlocutors with respect and evincing a respectful attitude toward, say, humans as humans. It’s possible that departments or even entire institutions can make such a standard applicable to judging one’s statements when made ex academia.

Would an academic journal be acting legitimately within its discipline if it declined to publish anything that relied mostly on ad hominem attacks against other scholars? I believe it could. Would an academic department be acting legitimately within its discipline if it declined to hire a controversial person because that person, in the judgment of those who ran the department, engages in uncivil speech? I believe it could. Would a university, in judging the scholarship of a professor applying for tenure, be acting legitimately by considering that professor’s argumentation against the norms of the discipline in which he/she works? I believe it could.

(For the record, I have read at least a smattering of journal articles that seem to be based on ad hominem argumentation. And one way to conceive of the whole “postmodern” approach to academic discussions is as an argument that ad hominems are valid.  Maybe ad hominems are not per se “uncivil,” but attacking the background and good faith of one’s discussant at least edges toward the border of civility.)

I should state that as a practical matter, judgments of civility and incivility should err on the side of speech. It’s better to leave such determinations to the departments that have to work with whomever they hire. (Again, that’s as a practical matter. I don’t concede that academic departments are necessarily any fairer than a board of trustees would be. But a less centralized approach will probably bring about better outcomes.)

I wish to limit my discussion to instances when a scholar speaks ex academia. When the scholar is speaking as a colleague or teacher, a different, probably higher, standard of civility should apply. When speaking ex civitate (as a citizen), a lower standard should apply.

I live in the real world and realize that when someone who is introduced as a “Professor of X” at a political rally, whether that person is speaking ex academia or ex civitate is probably an open question, and his or her employing institution is well-advised to err on the side of more speech. If that institution is a state-run institution, then well-advised approaches something like “categorically should be required to.”  I don’t want to insist that “when it’s public, it changes everything,” but if it is the state doing the censuring, it’s almost a freedom of speech issue.

Disciplines have standards about what is discussable and about how what is discussable is to be discussed. Academic speech—properly limited to those situations when the scholar is speaking ex academia and not, say, as a citizen, as a teacher, or as a colleague—can be legitimately restricted based on those standards. And civility can be one of them.


*Yes, I realize I am shifting back and forth between the “he or she” and “they” formulations.  I have no excuse.  It just seems, to me, to flow better sometimes one way, sometimes another.

Category: School

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5 Responses to Civility can be a legitimate restriction on academic speech

  1. trumwill says:

    I was wondering if this was going to be about John McAdams, who was sorta fired for incivility.

    My experiences at OT have taught me how difficult it can be to try to police civility in anything approaching a neutral manner.

    Incidentally, if you’re looking for a name for your city, Checagou will do (as in University of Sangamon at Checagou). You can go with Big City if you prefer.

  2. Thanks for the naming pointer.

    As for the McAdams story, I had heard of it, but I didn’t have that in mind. (In fact, I’ve been mulling over something like this post for quite a while, since the Salaita non-hiring.)

    With the McAdams case, I pretty much only have the Fox story you linked to (which I’ve just read) and a story from Inside Higher Ed (which I skimmed this last weekend or so). To my mind, what McAdams is alleged to have done might count as “uncivil” and his incivility is a reason for which he is being fired.

    I don’t think he is speaking ex academia, though (but I should say, I don’t have all the facts to make that determination). To me, he is speaking ex magistro (as a teacher) and, perhaps, ex (whatever the Latin word for “colleague” is), and in those roles, all things considered, he can be held to a stricter standard than if he were speaking ex academia. But then, he claims that he’s doing “journalism,” or perhaps something like speaking ex civitate. I’m inclined to disagree with him, but it probably depends on how much of a mentor he was to the grad student. (Was he her supervisor? In the same department? Just another professor in a completely different department? My impression was he was some sort of supervisor, but that wasn’t clear from the article. In my view, the closer he was to her professionally, the more he is speaking ex magistro/ex colleague.)

    He claims he is, instead, being fired for his non-popular political belief. I don’t see that, but it depends partly on whether he was her supervisor/colleague/just another professor. (I have, by the way, known one situation where a supervisor and the grad director disciplined a TA friend of mine. They did so very discreetly and certainly didn’t post about it online. The only reason I knew the details is because the TA told me his or her side of the story.)

    Finally, I think the grad student may have acted wrongly if she did what Fox said she did and if there’s nothing else in context that complicates what she did. I don’t think that necessarily means she needs to be disiplined

    • trumwill says:

      I tried to bait Hanley into writing a post about it, but I just got an email instead. I don’t think I’m divulging anything inappropriate by saying that he is of a similar mind.

      • jhanley says:

        Will, I don’t catch hints well. Better to slap me upside the head and say, “hey, I’d like a post about this!”

        Would my email work well enough as is if I cut and paste it?

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