Eric Posner's Tin Ear
By David Henderson
Legal scholar Eric Posner has written a piece on Slate defending various restrictions on students’ speech. Robby Soave, at Reason’s Hit and Run blog, has a good critique of much of Posner’s article. But I want to point out a huge problem with Posner’s piece that Soave did not comment on.
That’s why the contretemps about a recent incident at Marquette University is far less alarming than libertarians think. An inexperienced instructor was teaching a class on the philosophy of John Rawls, and a student in the class argued that same-sex marriage was consistent with Rawls’ philosophy. When another student told the teacher outside of class that he disagreed, the teacher responded that she would not permit a student to oppose same-sex marriage in class because that might offend gay students.
While I believe that the teacher mishandled the student’s complaint, she was justified in dismissing it. The purpose of the class was to teach Rawls’ theory of justice, not to debate the merits of same-sex marriage. The fact that a student injected same-sex marriage into the discussion does not mean that the class was required to discuss it. The professor might reasonably have believed that the students would gain a better understanding of Rawls’ theory if they thought about how it applied to issues less divisive and hence less likely to distract students from the academic merits of the theory.
Do you notice a little something missing from Posner’s account? Before I tell you, I note that everything Posner writes about the Marquette incident in his article is in the two paragraphs that I’ve just quoted.
I’ll save you the suspense. Posner leaves out the main thing about the Marquette incident that has many defenders of academic freedom up in arms: the fact that Marquette University is firing a tenured professor who criticized the teacher whom Posner discusses. In other words, everything that Posner writes in his piece is completely beside the point in judging the wisdom, morality, and legality of firing a tenured professor.