Free Speech at Connecticut College

06/30/2015 03:23 pm ET | Updated Jun 27, 2016

In August 2014, Professor Steven Salaita lost a tenured position at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign because his tweets criticizing the ongoing Israeli assault on the Palestinian population of Gaza were deemed uncivil. That same month Andrew Pessin, a philosophy professor at Connecticut College, wrote on his Facebook page:

One image which essentializes the current situation in Gaza might be this. You've got a rabid pit bull chained in a cage, regularly making mass efforts to escape. The owner, naturally, keeps the thing in the cage, but being kind-hearted or something regularly feeds it, waters it, takes care of its health needs, etc. But the liberal hearted world is outraged at the cruelty of keeping it in the cage, keeps pressuring the owner to let it out. Every so often the man relents under the pressure, opens the cage a crack, and the pit bull comes roaring bounding out, snarling, going for the throat.

Every time the pit bull "gets put back in" its cage, Professor Pessin continued, "liberal world pressure starts complaining about the cruelty to animals" and insists that the cage be opened. "Gaza is in the cage," he explained "because of its repeated efforts to destroy Israel and Jews." Israeli actions against Palestinians are "the result of the Arab enmity toward Israel and not its cause." In Professor Pessin's words:

Anyone who fails to recognize that clear and obvious fact is demanding the release of a rabid pit bull. You may call for this release because you are yourself a rabid pit bull protesting your co-specimen's detention, or because you are a well-meaning liberal hearted animal rights person. But you are demanding the same thing.

No one took much notice of this until February 18, 2015, when a Connecticut College student emailed an objection. Pessin promptly apologized and removed the post, indicating that it was only Hamas, not Palestinians in general, that he meant to describe as a rabid pit bull.

Despite the deletion of the post, the matter became increasingly public as critical responses escalated. In a March 8 apology in the student newspaper, The College Voice, Professor Pessin began, "I am truly sorry for the hurt and offense that I have caused," and ended by reiterating "my deepest apology for causing such wounds." Praising the "courage and integrity" of the student who originally objected, he acknowledged that his initial apology "was rather defensive in tone."

I see now--particularly after a moving conversation with a group of bright, brave, and sincerely wounded Conn students--just how damaging and hurtful the language of that post was. I made a great mistake in writing in the inflammatory manner that I did, and deeply regret the injury that I caused and have now directly witnessed.

Despite the public apology, the critiques continued with a series of "community statements" published on the college website. Like many other academic departments, the history department wrote on March 24, "we condemn speech filled with bigotry and hate particularly when that speech uses dehumanizing language and incites or celebrates violence and brutality." It added:

The history department would like to note the particularly salient tactic of dehumanizing language as a means to justify brutality and lull otherwise "well intentioned" people into silence and, effectively, complicity in racism, sexism, discrimination, colonialism and the numerous genocides throughout human history.

At a March 25 community forum responding to the issue, President Katherine Bergeron made it clear that Connecticut College would respect both Professor Pessin's freedom of speech and that of his critics:

Freedom of speech is absolutely essential to the integrity of a college, like ours, that operates according to fiercely held values of academic freedom and shared governance. No institution should abridge the right of students, faculty, and staff to express their views freely and openly. All our rights are better protected when free speech is the order of the day. This means that, just as everyone has a right to speak, everyone has the right to speak against, to confront speech that they consider destructive or inappropriate.

She added:

Yesterday, as I toured the new Shain library, these words of Kurt Vonnegut, delivered at Connecticut College in 1976, greeted me as I mounted the stairwell: "Our freedom to say or write whatever we please in this country is holy to me."

Like Boston University and Duke University in other recent cases, Connecticut College has opted, unlike the University of Illinois, to officially respect freedom of speech. Professor Pessin has been severely criticized but he still has his job. Of the four faculty charged in these recent cases with uncivil speech, the only one who lost a job was Professor Salaita.