The Subtle Mechanics of Unfree Speech

“We need not to be let alone. We need to be really bothered once in a while. How long is it since you were really bothered? About something important, about something real?”–Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

A cascade of managerial and public relations blunders has prompted Florida Atlantic University administrators to introduce The Agora Project, a broad initiative intending to promote “the practice of civility and civil discourse in an environment of free speech, academic freedom and open dialogue.”

Faculty valuing free speech and academic freedom whose persistent efforts at cultivating such through their teaching and research will likely be intrigued in hearing of the Agora Project, an endeavor proffering “forums on the importance of academic freedom, academic responsibility, and freedom of expression;” the program even promises to “create workshops on how best to practice civil and respectful interaction with others; and provide opportunities to discuss, dialogue and debate matters relevant to FAU and to our world.”

One is to conclude that, left to their own devices, faculty members and students may never arrive at a rational approach toward civility. Moreover, they may even become suspicious in the event that they are force-fed such an agenda. Indeed, after the Delphi-style exercise was presented at a recent faculty meeting, a colleague quietly pulled me aside and remarked, “This isn’t about civility. It’s about control.”

Will this individual soon be vociferously questioning Agora? Likely no. Wouldn’t want to “rock the boat” and draw attention to her/himself. Could s/he perhaps be on to something? Likely yes.

Not coincidentally, Agora was unveiled by university administrators in August 2013, a few short weeks after a speech code issued by FAU’s Division of Student Affairs was condemned by the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and subsequently revised. “Here at FAU,” the original speech code reads,

we encourage our campus community to exercise this cherished freedom in lively debate. In fact, we protect and promote that right. What we do insist on, however, is that everyone in the FAU community behave and speak to and about one another in ways that are not racist, religiously intolerant or otherwise degrading to others. (Emphasis added.)

FIRE countered that such a policy could impinge on constitutionally-protected speech and expression, possibly quashing not only academic discussion and inquiry, but also protest and debate on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict under the guise of “religious intolerance.”

In addition, an injunction on “racist” speech might be used to discipline vibrant exchanges on immigration and affirmative action. “And the prohibition on ‘otherwise degrading’ speech could apply to speech on virtually any topic that offends another person,” FIRE contends.

 A cynic might conclude that The Agora Project is a backdoor effort to provide the basis for extending such criteria across each of the University’s constituencies–faculty, students, staff–with their implicit approval given the plan’s professed effort of consultation and engagement.

Along these lines, perhaps the endeavor is an effort to assuage certain communities who for some reason aren’t comfortable with or seek to discontinue open discussion, debate, and social protest–all of which are to be anticipated in a space devoted to the expansion of intellectual horizons.

Of course, those in the upper echelons of university oversight–the administrators and trustees–who are pushing for prospective speech protocols are exempt from such measures, as their actions and behavior are apparently beyond reproach.

For example, last spring then-president Mary Jane Saunders ran into a protesting student with her Lexus sedan, fled the scene down the wrong way of a one-way street, and was subsequently defended by FAU trustees while the police investigating the incident discounted Saunders’ clear commitment of one or more felonies.

In the wake of the “conspiracy theory professor” and “stomp on Jesus” controversies, and protests surrounding a deal that would name the university’s new football stadium after a transnational for-profit prison outfit, dental industry entrepreneur and Republican Party functionary Jeffrey Feingold remarked, “I don’t want hear any more people say they think the lunatics have taken over the asylum.”

Feingold went on to criticize continued use of a headhunting firm that identified administrative candidates including Saunders because it allegedly produces “losers.” He went on to suggest a remarkably bizarre and insulting conspiracy theory that nonviolent campus protests by FAU students–the very children of Florida taxpayers who’ve elected to attend FAU—may culminate in violent terrorist attacks comparable to the Boston Marathon bombings! Unsurprisingly, no media attention or faculty outrage is afforded Feingold’s truly wacko theory.

One might ask, how is anyone given license for such behavior and remarks? Well, in January the ever-modest Feingold gave FAU $250,000 to name the university’s Board of Trustees room after him. “From those to whom much is given, much is expected,” he dictated.

With the above in mind, one’s imagination needn’t work overtime to identify the likely proponents of The Agora Project and its velvet-gloved implementation of “free speech and civility.” When FAU’s head honchos recently sat down to discuss selection of a new president, FAU Foundation Board Vice Chair and former Virginia “super lawyer” Jay Weinberg observed,

Because we are a diverse university … that doesn’t mean that we tolerate bigotry or prejudice. You have to draw a keen distinction between free speech and hate speech. I think that [in light of] recent events at this university, we need a president that understands that and who will act decisively with respect to it.

In other words, a principal holders of the institution’s purse strings asserts that the ideal chief administrator should reprimand and perhaps even fire faculty and staff who articulate extraordinary perspectives–ones that may fulfill the arbitrary and Kafkaesque notion of “hate speech.” In Agora-speak, this would inevitably involve violation of proposed “respectful” and “civic” discourse with-a-twist etiquettes.

In the subtly forced conversation on “civility,” “academic freedom,” and “respectful interaction,” a more clear-cut definition of what exactly constitutes meaningful exchange has been wholly lost, or, perhaps more fittingly, supplanted. In reality, couldn’t such a discussion be targeting the ideals that provide the basis for better understanding “something important, something real” that “really bothers” certain individuals … thus challenging them to consider an issue, an event, or a problem at a far deeper level?

When a university ceases to be a place where a wide expanse of “controversial” ideas and dialogues can be spontaneously ruminated on, one can safely conclude that it has made the transition from sanctuary and laboratory of free thought and ideas to a mere appendage of the consciousness industry and workhouse of the mind.

-JFT