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Speech Controversies in Academe
In the last decade, debates over campus speech and politics have reached a new pitch, as the debates of the early ‘90s are replayed by a new generation and across new forms of media. The Review has represented all sides in those conversations, from Andrew Koppelman on speech controversies at Yale Law and at UIC to Jennifer Ruth’s skeptical take on new groups like the Academic Freedom Alliance and Kate Manne and Jason Stanley on free speech as a bully stick.
On January 25 at 2 p.m., ET, The Chronicle will be convening a panel of experts, including university presidents, chief diversity officers, and intellectuals from across fields, to discuss changing generational attitudes toward free speech on campus. Sign up here.
George is wrong on every count. The Emory Law Journal did not reject Alexander’s essay. They did not declare any ideological grounds and in fact expressly stated that they would happily publish views that most of the editors disagreed with. There is no political litmus test that the Emory Law Journal has ever stated or hinted at.
Here’s what really happened: Alexander submitted an embarrassingly bad article (which Reason currently hosts) partly copied from one of his rants on a blog, and when the editors asked him to edit it and provide citations for some of his dumbest arguments, he refused to make any changes and instead tried to present himself as a victim of censorship.
Revision is not destructive to academic values; it is the essence of academic values. This is standard operating procedure for any publication: If you refuse to make any changes, the editors can refuse to publish.
Here were the changes Danielle Kerker Goldstein, the Emory Law Journal editor-in-chief, asked for in an email to Alexander:
I shared the piece with my Executive Board, and they unanimously stated they do not feel comfortable publishing this piece as written. We think there are fair points of intellectual disagreement that would not necessarily warrant the extreme action of withdrawing our publication offer. However, we believe this piece would need to be greatly revised to be published in our journal.
We take issue with your conversation on systemic racism, finding your words hurtful and unnecessarily divisive. Additionally, there are various instances of insensitive language use throughout the essay (e.g., widespread use of the objectifying term “blacks” and “the blacks” (pages 2, 3, 6, 8, etc.); the discussions on criminality and heredity (pages 11 and 14), the uncited statement that thankfully racism is not an issue today (page 18)). And, crucially, the discussion on racism is not strongly connected to your commentary on Professor Perry’s work, which is the focus of the Issue and the purpose behind the publication opportunity offered.
Can you please modify the piece, removing Part III and focusing on building Parts I & II to discuss the merits of Professor Perry’s work, by Sunday, December 19? We would welcome a manuscript revised along the lines we have suggested, but, absent those revisions, ELJ will not publish this contribution to the festschrift.
The use of terms such as “insensitive,” “hurtful,” and “divisive” attracted angry attacks from conservatives. I don’t think “hurtful” or “divisive” is a good argument against scholarly work, and I wish the editors had focused exclusively on the essay’s intellectual flaws. But I suspect the editors were just trying to be polite by suggesting that Alexander was unintentionally offensive.
Perhaps the editors should have realized that some conservatives are very sensitive. They need safe spaces free from words like “harmful” and “divisive” that might trigger their ideological outrage. But I have a hard time objecting to any of their editing critiques or presuming that political bias is the only possible reason why editors might want to change an essay this badly argued.
Alexander’s essay is a compendium of bizarre and unsupported claims. For instance, he tries to minimize the harms of slavery by pointing out that “in the absence of slavery, today’s individual blacks would not exist.” He explains this further:
For each of us is the product of a particular sperm and egg. Change the circumstances of conception ever so slightly, and a different individual is created. And slavery caused more than slight changes in the circumstances of conception that would have existed in its absence. Each of us in reality owes our very existence to past horrendous events, and that is as true of today’s blacks as it is of the rest of us. So, none today can say, but for slavery, I would have been better off. People might be better off today had there been no slavery, but none of us, blacks included, would be.
Yes, he’s actually arguing that we must oppose reparations for slavery because without slavery we would all be different people with different parents.
Then there’s: “The real impediment to the advancement of poor blacks — and everyone knows this, regardless of whether they admit it — is the cultural factors that have produced family disintegration.” As a standard of evidence, “everyone knows this” shows a distinct lack of scholarly rigor. So I have a hard time understanding why anyone would condemn the Emory Law Journal editors for merely asking for citations for such claims to be sourced.
The final objection of the Emory Law Journal editors was their biggest concern: “Crucially, the discussion on racism is not strongly connected to your commentary on Professor Perry’s work, which is the focus of the Issue and the purpose behind the publication opportunity offered.” Obviously, a tribute to Michael Perry’s work should include critiques of his work (even if they are about an obscure essay Perry wrote 45 years ago). But Perry never wrote about reparations, which was one substantial focus of Alexander’s essay.
Turley writes: “Ideally, this conflict should have been resolved with more work on both sides. I do believe that this essay would have been greatly improved with some rewriting or further explanation of these points. However, editors have an equal responsibility in maintaining a diversity of viewpoints and in recognizing that some ‘editing’ demands can reflect bias or viewpoint discrimination.” That’s a reasonable approach. But Alexander withdrew the essay — the Emory Law Journal didn’t reject it. Alexander could have pushed back. He could have refused certain changes or challenged their rationale. Instead, Alexander refused to make any changes at all. He refused to be edited.
The attacks on the Emory Law Journal also reflect a deep misunderstanding of what academic freedom means. Robby Soave in Reason compared the case to Alexander’s occasional co-author Amy Wax: “Alexander is facing an even more obvious violation of basic principles of academic freedom.” That’s wrong. The Wax case is a real threat to academic freedom because it involves a university punishing a professor for their views. The Alexander incident isn’t about academic freedom at all.
Academic freedom is the right not to be punished for your views unless you have violated scholarly standards and receive due process. But the failure of someone to publish you is not a form of punishment. Nobody has a right to unedited publication.
Editors get to make judgments about articles. The judgments may be good or they may be bad, but they are not violations of academic freedom. The only academic freedom right here is the right of the editors to edit.
The attacks on the Emory Law Journal reflect the ideological blinders of our times. So many people are convinced that conservatives are oppressed on campus that they jump to conclusions that confirm their presumptions at the first hint that some “woke” student might be concerned about “hurtful” language. But the details about this case show something else entirely.
A version of this essay appeared originally on Academe’s blog.