SPEAKING FREELY


E-mail (dated 5/7/08) from Professor Brian Richardson to one of the organizers of the "Respect" forum


Ms. Hughes:

Iím sorry that I didnít know most of the students at last nightís forum, including your co-organizer. Please feel free to share this with whomever you think appropriate. Among the many people I am copying it to are several folks whom I did recognize there.

I am deeply grateful to you - as I think the entire university community should be - for organizing and leading the meeting. It was obviously a conversation we needed to have, and need more of. I was also moved by the overwhelming student sentiment I saw and heard expressed: Itís not time for blood, itís time to heal, to move on, to act on what we have learned. In that, I think some of your teachers are being taught by their students. Bless you all, and thank you.

I had prepared something to say at last nightís meeting, but by the end I thought you had heard from enough faculty, so I decided to share it with you in writing instead. It reflects some remarks I made to the faculty on Monday. I believe these remarks are especially appropriate to share with you now, after seeing the positive way students were engaging last night.

The philosopher Suzanne Langer said ďSpeech is the mark of humanity.Ē So there is an irony in using speech to de-humanize, as the authors of The Bracket did. But if Langer is right, we also de-humanize when we attempt to limit speech by punishing it.

I know you are aware that the authors of The Bracket are being prosecuted before the Student Faculty Hearing Board tonight. The way this case has unfolded shows that we have reached a point on this campus where any member of the university community can take a student journalist, or anyone who speaks, before a quasi-judicial body by anonymous complaint, asking that they be punished in a life-altering way for what they wrote. The forum you organized last night allowed members of the community - including the authors of The Bracket -- to speak to each other. Tonightís forum will not provide them the same right.

To be sure, what they wrote in The Bracket was reprehensible. No one in this community with an ounce of decency embraced their comments. The community rose up with one voice to denounce the authors and their editor. They endured a firestorm of public and private criticism, including mine. The column triggered an ongoing campus conversation that, as last night showed so emphatically, was and is the appropriate response. The media board, which includes editors from all student publications, resolved a complaint about the column by ordering The Trident to write a code of ethics. The Trident has done so. It appeared in last weekís issue, along with a pledge by the editor to re-focus the paper. I commend both her statement and the new code to everyone. And now the columnís authors have resigned and apologized to the community.

A few of my colleagues, including our wonderful athletic director, Jan Hathorn, and Dean of Students, Dawn Watkins, have called on us to recognize the wrenching incidents of the past couple of months as teaching and learning moments. Measured by The Tridentís code of ethics, the resignations, and last nightís forum, the public response has done just that.

I submit that teaching and learning moments are what we as an institution are all about. As a faculty member of 18 years standing and an alumnus who celebrated his 35th reunion last weekend, I say emphatically that regulating speech and punishing the authors for what they wrote are not what we are about. When The Bracket was published, President Ruscio showed admirable leadership by condemning the column and its authors while cautioning the community against an inappropriate response. Let us heed his words now.

Is respect about deciding how to mete out punishment, tit-for-tat - they hurt us, letís hurt them? Emphatically not. You and your fellow students showed last night how well you understood that. For you, itís time to heal. I submit that respect is about embracing redemption. For those who last night invoked President Leeís name - for better or worse -- in arguing for their definition of respect and honor, I remind you that Washington and Lee probably owes its existence, and certainly President Lee owed his life - to President Lincoln and General Grantís embrace of redemption.

Obviously, all of us in the university community seek to create an environment in which students understand the consequences of their actions, and a model for discourse that is both vigorous and civil. I submit that regulating speech by punishing those who transgress is far from the best way to do that. When speech is punished, debate is necessarily circumscribed. Offensive opinions, characterizations and attitudes that should be publicly exposed, debated, refuted and condemned will instead be driven underground, where they cannot be challenged but will be reinforced by circulation only among those few who embrace them. They will not disappear; they will fester.

The United Nationsí Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognizes the right of all people to freedom of opinion and expression; that includes the freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media. There is a reason the Declaration includes that language. When we allow any speech to be punished, we acknowledge and endorse that all speech may be punished.

I was intrigued and moved by your reference last night to the German theologian Martin Niemoellerís short poem:

First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out--

because I was not a communist;

Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out--

because I was not a socialist;

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out--

because I was not a trade unionist;

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out--

because I was not a Jew;

Then they came for me--

and there was no one left to speak out for me.

We can all name other societies that punish writers for what they write before tribunals that meet in secret and do not allow the accused to confront or even know the identity of their accusers. If we give our blessing to the proceeding scheduled before the Student Faculty Hearing Board tonight, we place ourselves among that company. If this process is legitimate, then by its own rules it knows no bounds. For example, anyone who interpreted any comment last night as offensive to their sex - whether it was directed at them or not -- can file an anonymous complaint, it will be heard in secret, and the accused will never have an opportunity to confront the person who complained. Is that who we want to be? Is that what we mean by respect?

Again, last night you and your fellow students began to show us a different way - a way that embraces healing, redemption, respect. I agree with you that it is the way we must all go now.

Again, congratulations, and many thanks.

Cheers, BR

 

Brian Richardson

Department Head

Journalism and Mass Communications

Reid Hall

Washington and Lee University

Lexington, VA 24450

540-458-8430

"It ain't what you tell 'em; it's what they hear." -- Red Auerbach

 


Back to Speaking Freely home