As a university professor, I know that much of my job involves engaging in speech. I do that “live” in front of students, I do it on Youtube recordings, I do it on a blog, I do it in academic journal articles, and I do “speech” in email and hallway conversations. All faculty know that occasionally they say or write things that could be misconstrued. Oftentimes we are required to be spontaneous; we respond to audiences. When delivering impromptu speech, sometimes words come out in way that after reflection seems to not reflect our deliberate intent. Academics, moreover, are the master practitioners of sarcasm, irony, devil’s advocacy, provocation, etc. And academics disagree about many things, and are not always certain what is meant when something is stated to be a fact or by when someone says they are offended.
At the same time, faculty know that many of their colleagues, especially in earlier times, were, as Chuck D. once sang, “Straight up racist that sucker was.” So institutions with histories of unacknowledged racism and sexism (think Georgetown’s sale of slaves, or my own institution’s (Santa Clara University) century-long refusal to admit women) and privilege have to cope now with a remedy of occasional sanction for certain kinds of speech.
I struggle every day with the balance of these considerations. Long explorations like this essay in the Washington Post by Eugene Volokh can be very helpful, even if I do not agree with the entire argument he is making.
Last week, the University of Oregon made clear to its faculty: If you say things about race, sexual orientation, sex, religion and so on that enough people find offensive, you could get suspended (and, following the logic of the analysis) even fired. This can happen even to tenured faculty members; even more clearly, it can happen to anyone else. It’s not limited to personal insults. It’s not limited to deliberate racism or bigotry.