Law Students Flunk Academic Freedom 101

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Another day, another casualty in a conflict pitting equality and demographic diversity against free speech and diversity of opinion: "A Singapore law professor who was to teach a human rights course at New York University Law School this fall has withdrawn after students protested what they called her anti-gay views," the New York Times reported last week. The anger at Dr. Thio Li-ann's appointment as a visiting professor was understandable: According to a petition protesting it, she had opposed repeal of a Singaporean law criminalizing homosexual conduct and "supported the imposition of a $15,000 fine on a free-access Singaporean television channel for presenting a gay couple and their child as a family unit."  (If the latter claim is accurate, it surely undermines her credibility as victim of censorship.)

The trouble is that the petition in opposition to Professor Thio imagines her appointment as a violation of NYU's "own policy of nondiscrimination." In other words, gay students (and members of other historically disadvantaged groups) are said to suffer actual discrimination when the administration hires faculty members who argue against anti-discrimination laws.  This confusion of speech and action -- of advocating for discrimination and actually engaging in it -- is common in academia, where academic freedom is too often limited to the freedom to advance prevailing ideals of equality.  (See thefire.org)
   
The refusal of law students even to hear opposing views, reflecting opposing moral codes, is particularly worrisome. I wouldn't want one of these future lawyers ever advocating for me. They're unlikely to learn how to argue effectively if they limit their law school debates to matters about which only presumptively reasonable people disagree. Uniformity of opinion breeds complacency, close-mindedness, and a tendency to mistake attitudes for arguments.
   
I offer no opinion about the wisdom of Dr. Thio's original appointment. In responding to her withdrawal, NYU law school dean Richard Revesz smartly finessed questions about her appointment by noting that while her views should not have disqualified her, despite their variance from the university's ideals, the quality of her arguments in support of her views were relevant to her evaluation. "Leading academic institutions benefit greatly from a diversity of perspectives, not from hiring only people who share the same views," Revesv observed (he is quoted at length at abajournal.com). "At the same time, our evaluation of Professor Thio's strength as a scholar might have been usefully informed by an assessment of the analytic cogency and methodological integrity of the arguments and evidence she marshaled for her position." If Thio did defend her views with "analytic cogency"' and empirical integrity, the students who successfully forced her withdrawal may miss the opportunity to spar with her more than they'll ever know.

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Wendy Kaminer is an author, lawyer, and civil libertarian. She is the author of I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional, and a past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship. More

Wendy Kaminer is a lawyer and social critic who has been a contributing editor of The Atlantic since 1991. She writes about law, liberty, feminism, religion and popular culture and has written eight books, including Worst InstinctsFree for All; Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials; and I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional. Kaminer worked as a staff attorney in the New York Legal Aid Society and in the New York City Mayor's Office and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1993. She is a renowned contrarian who has tackled the issues of censorship and pornography, feminism, pop psychology, gender roles and identities, crime and the criminal-justice system, and gun control. Her articles and reviews have appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, The American Prospect, Dissent, The Nation, The Wilson Quarterly, Free Inquiry, and spiked-online.com. Her commentaries have aired on National Public Radio. She serves on the board of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, the advisory boards of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the Secular Coalition for America, and is a member of the Massachusetts State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.

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