Phi Beta Cons

The Right take on higher education.

A Tech Professor’s Embarrassing Op-Ed


On Friday, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution opened its op-ed pages to competing pieces discussing the Alliance Defense Fund’s free-speech victory. The plaintiffs, Ruth Malhotra and Orit Sklar, wrote a clear defense of free speech on public campuses while Tech professor Phil McKnight answered with a defense of censorship so intellectually dishonest as to be embarrassing. Money grafs:

It seems that nowadays society requires and demands the right of “in your face.” A discussion or a debate between people of radically differing opinions on such topics as abortion, affirmative action, equal rights for gays and lesbians, or the integration of people born outside the country can no longer be based on rational principles, factual documentation and moral conviction, not to mention any mutual desire to find a point of common agreement. It should instead be charged with insults, slurs, gloating and other methods of psychological violence, and on falsified or unsubstantiated implications.

After all, the politicians and athletes do it. But as Voltaire, who had a word or two to say about tolerance, would have it: “It is clear that the individual who persecutes a man, his brother, because he is not of the same opinion, is a monster.

Tolerance, even if it is itself demeaning and can only be a transitory phase on the way to genuine respect and equality, is, at least, a step forward from bigotry. The defense of intolerance in a Georgia court leaves open the door for the promulgation of prejudice and the replacement of discourse with counterproductive and ugly tirades.

I’m sorry, but this is just nonsense. I’m sure that even professor McKnight realizes that the definition of “tolerance” is a bit, well, malleable. We can’t even agree on the definition of “insult.” Let’s take the actual case at Georgia Tech as an example. I would presume from McKnight’s editorial that he would favor argument based on “moral conviction” over “in your face” racial slurs, for example. Yet at Tech, the tolerant Left confronted the plaintiffs’ calm and peaceful protests (which contained no racial slurs or personal insults of any kind) with first censorship and then — after the plaintiffs challenged the censorship in court — explicitly racist insults and even threats. Here is the tolerant left at work (taken from an actual e-mail to Ruth Malhotra, one of the two plaintiffs in the case):

You think you are going to file a suit out of bigotry then graduate, huh? Well this school will finally be rid of you, but not before throwing acid in your face so you get a feel (literally) for what its like not to be tolerated. As if your face was not ugly enough……it will be some ceremony.

Or how about this lovely statement: “It is important that we respond to Malhotra’s bigoted blather. This fat ugly b****** is getting so desperate (not to mention the fact that she badly needs plastic surgery).” This came from the tolerantly-named “CLAM” (Conservatives and Liberals Against Malhotra).  

Campus speech codes have always worked this way. Those who advance the favored point of view (usually adopting the leftist version of “tolerance”) are given the absolute freedom to make their case, even when their words and actions would violate any fair reading of the speech code. Those who disagree with the campus orthodoxy are not even permitted to respond with the most basic forms of mainstream political expression. Is it really out of bounds to protest affirmative action? Is the “Vagina Monologues” now such an accepted part of public discourse that protesting its vulgar language and sexual obsessions merits not just censorship but a trip to the president’s office? Is it now the case that “tolerance” of homosexuality means not just respecting the fundamental free speech rights of homosexual activists (which the plaintiffs do, by the way) but standing aside as the power of the state is appropriated to make official RELIGIOUS arguments that advocates of traditional sexual morality can be compared to slave owners?

As Ruth and Orit said so well in their own op-ed:

We believe in legal equality for all students in the marketplace of ideas. May the best ideas win. But Georgia Tech believes that its ideas are not strong enough to withstand scrutiny, and it apparently has decided that it knows all the answers to the major political and even religious issues of the day. That is why it pushed to silence us. That is why it de-funds student political and religious organizations at the same time that it tries to teach us what our religious beliefs should be (to give you a hint: Georgia Tech prefers Buddhists over Baptists). This is disingenuous, unconstitutional and demonstrates the selectivity in enforcement.

The plaintiffs in the Tech case do not want to insult anyone (and they never have). They simply want the chance to speak. They’ll leave the insults, intolerance, and threats to Phil McKnight’s friends in the tolerant left at Georgia Tech.  


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