University professors often post things on their office doors—photos, news clippings, conference posters, political cartoons. I’ve never been much for that. The objective, I assume, is to express something about yourself: who you are, what interests you, what values you hold. I’ve never participated in this custom because I haven’t wanted to alienate students who might not share my views. That’s not to suggest that I’m shy about those views. I will—and regularly do—share them with students, even those who I know disagree with me. But if posting my views on the door were to dissuade students from coming to me to discuss those views (and contrary ones), I would be losing the opportunity to have a meaningful dialogue. Plus, my tastes veer toward minimalism, and doors covered with postings are ugly. Thus, no postings.
Until today. My institution, the University of Missouri, is at a crossroads. We can be a place where ideas—even unpopular ones—are freely expressed, exchanged, and scrutinized. Or we can be a place where everyone’s feelings are protected at all times. It’s one or the other.
Tuesday morning, I opened an email and thought, “What a great prank. It looks so official!” The email, which was from the MU Police, read as follows:
To continue to ensure that the University of Missouri campus remains safe, the MU Police Department (MUPD) is asking individuals who witness incidents of hateful and/or hurtful speech or actions to:
- Call the police immediately at 573-882-7201. (If you are in an emergency situation, dial 911.)
- Give the communications operator a summary of the incident, including location.
- Provide a detailed description of the individual(s) involved.
- Provide a license plate and vehicle descriptions (if appropriate).
- If possible and if it can be done safely, take a photo of the individual(s) with your cell phone.
Delays, including posting information to social media, can often reduce the chances of identifying the responsible parties. While cases of hateful and hurtful speech are not crimes, if the individual(s) identified are students, MU’s Office of Student Conduct can take disciplinary action.
As it turns out, it was no joke. Anyone on my campus who witnesses “hurtful speech” is directed to call campus police—individuals who carry guns, drive squad cars, and regularly arrest people. Now rest assured, “cases of hateful and hurtful speech are not crimes.” They can give rise to, at most, “disciplinary action” by the MU Office of Student Conduct. But still, isn’t it a bit unsettling—chilling, even—to think that if you say something “hurtful” at Mizzou (e.g., gay marriage is an abomination, affirmative action is unfair and hurts those it is ostensibly designed to help, Christians who oppose gay marriage are bigots, Islam is not a religion of peace, white men are privileged in a way that leads to undeserved rewards, culture matters in cultivating success, Republicans are dumb), the police may track you down and you may be required to defend yourself before the student conduct committee? Perhaps the MU Police, or whoever crafted that email (let’s get real…it wasn’t the police), didn’t really mean that all hurtful speech is potentially problematic. But if that’s the case, then why did they word the email as they did? Pandering to an unreasonable element, maybe?
Contrast Mizzou’s approach to that taken by Purdue University. The day after the Mizzou email, Purdue president Mitch Daniels reminded members of the Purdue community that their school actually stands for both tolerance AND free speech. Here’s his letter:
The contrast between Mizzou and Purdue couldn’t be starker. And it really, really matters. I hope that posting these two documents on my door (along with this spot-on Wall Street Journal editorial) will not dissuade students from engaging in dialogue with me. But I can’t be demure on this one. So I now have—much to my aesthetic chagrin—a decorated office door. Please come in and talk, even if you think I’m wrong.
I find the situation at some of our universities both absurd and amusing. They seem like the Lord of the Flies in its savagery and ignorance. The resemblance to Animal Farm are worth noting especially when the pigs can no longer be distinguished from the old farmers. Well every generation needs people who can be pointed at as examples of what must be avoided.
Unlike my colleague, Thom Lambert, whose office door is directly across from mine, my door is adorned with conference postings in which I have been invited speak; a poem about taking Risks; and a cartoon depicting students at various educational stages being told not to speak in class and a college professor wondering why no one contributes. There is also a statement from my own student law school days that is the Black Attorney’s Creed. Lastly, the window of my door is adorned with Kente cloth sash that I wore during my undergraduate graduation. These items are on my door for several reasons to provide notice to those marginalized and underrepresented students that in a building whose only representation of someone who looks like them appears on a common area and is of Lloyd Gaines (who denied entrance because of his race). The items on my door inform students of my research and scholarly interests. And so, while my colleague elects to be minimalist in that which adorns his office door as a reflection of his personality. My door reflects my personality and stands a constant visual reminder of the diversity (as limited as it is) on our faculty.
My colleague, David Mitchell, has poured himself into this law school. As I type this, students are streaming into his office to discuss course work as well as life in general. I’m continually impressed with the time and energy he gives to students, as well as to members of the Columbia community. He is a model professor–brilliant, diligent, compassionate, passionate about his views, and entirely open to those of others. I didn’t meant to imply that anything on his door is in any way off-putting. As the stream of student visitors would attest, his is one of the most welcoming offices in our school.
When I co-chaired the dean’s search committee at the law school a few years back, David worked harder than anyone to recruit a high-quality pool of applicants. He also offered me some very helpful advice when I made a misstep. I owe him for that (and many other things), and I’m proud to be his colleague.
When I spoke with David this morning (cutting in line between student visits!), he was his characteristically gracious self. We agreed that it’s been a tough week at Mizzou and that, while we may have some disagreements on precisely how to balance competing values, we–like everyone on the law school faculty–are ultimately committed to the same thing: a learning environment characterized by tolerance, respect, and the free exchange of ideas.
I should also express my admiration for and thanks to Prof. Chuck Henson, Mizzou’s new Interim Vice-Chancellor for Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity, for reiterating in an interview (discussed here) that Mizzou is firmly committed to the First Amendment. I was most pleased to see the university’s statement yesterday (“signed” by Chuck) affirming free speech values.
My Mizzou Law colleagues are wonderful.
Wow. This really does defy imagination. Using armed cops to stifle free speech and/or enforce social tolerance. No matter which way I look at it, it spells out disproportion.
Prof. Lambert, this ‘My Office Door’ post and your ‘Supporting My Mizzou Students’ post are excellent and much-needed reflections presented in a cool-headed, well-reasoned manner. It is sad and troubling to see some commentors enflamed by your very fair analysis in the latter piece (not that the former isn’t also a fair analysis, just that I don’t see any comments … yet). Thank you; your well-written, gutsy approach deserves kudos. But, sadly, the over-celebrated emotional reaction to seemingly anything that upsets the ridiculous “every opinion is valid” mentality will prevent many from seeing (let alone appreciating) the keen perspectives in your evenhanded wisdom.
A KU Law School & KU Journalism School Grad