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David Moshman

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Jane, You Ignorant Slut: Civility, Speech and Academic Freedom

Posted: 03/13/2012 5:42 pm

In a classic series of Saturday Night Live sketches, Jane Curtin would provide a liberal point of view and then her counterpart Dan Aykroyd would provide a withering response, beginning, "Jane, you ignorant slut." Their point/counterpoint was an over-the-top parody of political discussion. But no longer.

Broadcaster Rush Limbaugh, as everyone knows by now, has called Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke a "slut" and a "prostitute," and has suggested she post videos of herself having sex. How does he supposedly know so much about her sex life and why is he demanding to know more? She provided congressional testimony supporting women's access to contraception as part of standard health coverage.

Many have distanced themselves from Limbaugh's remarks including, eventually, Limbaugh himself in a belated apology. Sponsors have left. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said, "It's not the language I would have used."

What language would he have used? In the world of comedy news, Jon Stewart suggested Romney might have preferred to call Fluke a "hussy" or a "trollop." Stephen Colbert liked "trollop" and also suggested "wanton harlot."

Meanwhile in the world of academia, University of Rochester Economics Professor Steven Landsburg took on the question of her ignorance. Acknowledging that Fluke herself "deserves the same basic respect we owe to any human being," he insisted in the March 2 post on his blog that what is at issue here is "her position," which deserves no respect whatsoever. Her position "deserves only to be ridiculed, mocked, and jeered. To treat it with respect would be a travesty."

Rush Limbaugh provided, in Professor Landsburg's view, "a spot-on analogy." And is Fluke a slut, according to Landsburg? He argued that "slut," unlike "prostitute," connotes "the sort of joyous enthusiasm that would render payment superfluous." He concluded that neither term is quite right. Fluke is an "extortionist," or more precisely an "extortionist with an overweening sense of entitlement."

On March 6, University of Rochester President Joel Seligman issued a statement declaring that he was "deeply disappointed" with Professor Landsburg's writings on this matter. He was, moreover, "outraged that any professor would demean a student in this fashion."

President Seligman acknowledged Professor Landsburg's "right to express his views" and affirmed "our University's deep commitment to academic freedom." Nevertheless, without threatening any penalty, he urged "an atmosphere of civil discourse in which the dignity of every individual is respected."

Professor Landsburg replied, "People who express actual views on this matter do not deserve to be mocked or ridiculed." Sandra Fluke, apparently, had not expressed anything he would deem an "actual view." She falls into the category of "people who think that ideas don't matter" and is thus fair game for mockery and ridicule.

On March 7, thirty University of Rochester students protested Professor Landsburg's support of Rush Limbaugh at the beginning and end of a class he was teaching. It appears there was an initial effort to disrupt the class, but Professor Landsburg continued to teach and there was no need for University Security officers to take any action.

Where does that leave us? Mass media personalities have a First Amendment right not to be censored by the government. Sponsors have a right to sponsor or not sponsor what they please. College professors have a right to agree or disagree with public figures and statements. College presidents have a right to agree or disagree with professors but should be clear that free speech and academic freedom will be protected. College students have a right to protest but should not disrupt classes.

We all have a First Amendment right to begin our arguments with some version of "Jane, you ignorant slut." We can't rely on censors to enforce civility. But we needn't say all the terrible things we're allowed to say. We can, and often should, remind each other of that.

Efforts to be civil, in academic and other contexts, generally enhance discourse, decision making, and the advancement of knowledge. But censorship is never civil. Civility must be encouraged within an atmosphere of intellectual freedom. Rush Limbaugh's show may be part of the price we pay for intellectual freedom, but academic freedom requires that students and faculty be free to agree with him.