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.