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If you disagree with someone’s opinion, you’re better off threatening to rape their family members than you are threatening hinder them from speaking…according to the Purdue University “Commitment to Freedom of Expression,” that is.
Earlier this month, Purdue University staffer Jamie Newman, a zealous pro-choice supporter, posted the following comments on a LifeSiteNews.com article about presidential candidates views on rape and abortion:
Here’s a screenshot of one of the comments Newman made:
On Monday, Newman turned in his resignation after the university refused to fire him because, as university president and former Indiana governor Mitch Daniels told the Lafayette Journal & Courier, Newman was allowed to persuade law enforcement officials that he didn’t really mean it:
If we had not changed the policies, the speaker would have been fired summarily. Only because of the liberalization of that policy did that person get a chance to explain himself and persuaded the law enforcement people that he was just spouting off, that he really had no intent to do exactly what he said he wanted to do. Personally, I think that was a better outcome.
President Daniels is referring to a change that was made to Purdue’s free speech policy in May of 2015. At that time, Purdue published a press release about the adoption of a more far-reaching policy freedom of expression. Here’s an excerpt:
The statement adopts principles and language recently articulated at the University of Chicago in its Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression, stating that the university’s fundamental commitment is “to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed. It is for the individual members of the University community, not for the University as an institution, to make those judgments for themselves, and to act on those judgments not by seeking to suppress speech, but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas that they oppose.”
So, when Purdue staff member Jamie Newman, listed as an accompanist in the school’s Division of Dance, posted rape threats on a pro-life website, he was reprimanded and told to apologize, but not fired.
However, Julie Rosa, Purdue’s Assistant Vice President of Strategic Communications told Campus Reform:
Obviously, a threat of rape is outside the bounds of any definition of protected speech. Due process requires that, before taking any action, we verify the alleged facts and give this staff member the chance to explain himself if he can. Needless to say, the statements, as alleged, are reprehensible and unacceptable in the eyes of the entire Purdue community.
So, it seems that rape threats are not considered protected speech by Purdue University, but that due process requires the offending party to explain him- or herself.
As a result, because Newman was able to explain himself to the authorities, his rape threats are not treated as “legitimate,” assumedly because he had no intention to carry them out.
At the same time, Rosa says, while his comments are permitted, they are “reprehensible and unacceptable in the eyes of the entire Purdue community.”
She’s wrong. The comments may be “reprehensible” but the comments are literally acceptable by the Purdue community. If they were unacceptable, Newman would have been fired because of, not protected by, the freedom of expression policy.
According to the Journal & Courier, Purdue University attorney Steve Schultz rebuked Newman, calling for him to apologize. Newman replied in a detailed letter:
If anything, you owe me an apology – indeed, you should probably be begging my forgiveness – for facilitating the dissemination of fabricated and defamatory statements about me, and for failing to vehemently denounce the effort made of Students for Life to destroy my life and career.
Well, alrighty then.
As you read about this, you may be tempted to think one way or another about the situation because of the broader ethical context in which the comments in question took place. Take your stance on abortion out of the equation for a moment, though, and ask yourself this question:
Should rape threats in an online comment thread be protected by employers’ free expressions policies?
Did anyone really think Newman was going to hunt down the family of fellow commenters and rape them? Certainly not. But it shouldn’t matter.
How people act on social media (comment threads included) matters. Whether or not a university staffer who threatens to rape people with whom he disagrees actually rapes someone is inconsequential. One has to wonder how such an employee would work with or teach people with whom he or she disagrees vehemently.
Should universities, and employers in general, provide an environment in which students, faculty, staff, and employees of all sorts can discuss divisive issues without negative consequences? Certainly.
Should violent threats, however empty or full, be a protected means of dialogue? Certainly not.
Ultimately, an employer’s free expression policy ended up protecting that which it explicitly restricts:
The University may restrict expression, for example, that violates the law, that falsely defames a specific individual, that constitutes a genuine threat or harassment…
…unless, of course, you don’t mean it.