This New York Times opinion piece brought to my attention the latest addition to the conversation of free speech on college campuses.
On September 27th, Professor Mitchell Langbert wrote an entry on his blog* where he characterizes sexual assault as an rite of passage for young men. A response following the allegations against Kavanaugh, Langbert begins his entry with:
“If someone did not commit sexual assault in high school, then he is not a member of the male sex. The Democrats have discovered that 15-year-olds play spin-the-bottle, and they have jumped on a series of supposed spin-the-bottle crimes during (Supreme Court nominee Brett) Kavanaugh’s minority, which they characterize as rape, although no one complained or reported any crime for 40 years.”
The post is less than two hundred words but it uses every single line to strike a chord. His flippant definition of sexual assault as expected rather than exception sparked outrage once it garnered attention.
Following backlash from the student body, Langbert later amended the blog post to include a preamble where he compares the post to the written satire of Jonathan Swift. His comparison to the particular satire is not an equal one however. In Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” (1729), he writes that a solution to the increasing poverty would be for Irish parents sell their children as food to the British.
Though I have not read Swift’s entire work, my knowledge of satire and history tells me that the absurdity in this “solution” lies in the fact that Great Britain is largely to blame for the famine and ever-growing poverty that the Irish experienced in the eighteenth century. Using them as a solution, one in which the British literally eat the Irish, is undoubtedly political satire that could even be further analyzed.
His post simply isn’t satire.
The only component where I can perhaps see the use of a literary device is in his call for sexual assault to be a requirement for all future political and judicial appointments. I’m assuming that this was meant as a tongue-in-cheek jest of how little he views sexual assault as an issue, and therefore the kind of absurd exaggeration you might find in parody.
Many believe his later amendment claiming the post as satire was an insincere defense that he is using as a smokescreen. Considering that his blog posts have always skewed right and looks down upon Democrats, it casts doubt whether this would be the kind of satire featured on his blog.
If the post is taken as satire, the interpretation that would make the most sense is that he finds the fact that society cares so little about sexual assault that it is “expected” of young men. Furthermore, that if we are not going to listen to women who come forward, then we might as well set sexual assault as a requirement for appointees.
In the added preamble, he precludes this analysis by writing: “Given that it is unclear that Kavanaugh did a thing, the defamation that he has suffered at the hands of the media is a disgrace. Intolerance of and defamation of anyone who does not toe the big government line are ongoing threats to freedom. The humiliation that Judge Kavanaugh has suffered is a disgrace.”
The blog post has stirred debates on whether the college should/could fire or penalize the professor, whether the post should be protected, and whether his post was actually satire and if that even mattered. Those against the blog post would say that the content itself is inappropriate regardless of whether or not it was satire.
In recent years, regulating speech on college campuses has become an increasingly complex and polarizing issue. Though there are many unique viewpoints on the subject, it is essentially a debate between those who would like to regulate hate speech and other offensive speech, and those who believe the First Amendment should protect their speech regardless of whether someone finds it offensive.
Do they have a point? The First Amendment protects against government infringement of speech, but other sectors of everyday life aren’t held to the same standard. For colleges and universities though, it ultimately comes down to whether it is a public or private institution. A private institution may regulate speech based on content, whereas a public institution would find itself in hot water.
Langbert is a tenured professor at the public Brooklyn College. In other words, he’s virtually untouchable. Professors at public institutions have increased protection because of the college’s status, and his tenure makes it exceedingly difficult to fire him.
This is especially true because of Brooklyn College’s policy on speech: “Concerns about civility can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however disagreeable or offensive they may be to some members of the University community. The appropriate response to false or offensive speech is not to prohibit it but to respond with more speech.”
Though I cannot express just how much I hate what he wrote, I believe we have to be careful when speaking about regulating speech on college campuses. Just as it can be used by one side of the aisle, it can be used on the other. For instance, there are colleges that once banned health professionals from informing their students of contraception or abortion services because they opposed them.
Yes his speech is allowed and free, but that doesn’t mean he is free from social repercussions. I agree that a professor should not be condoning sexual assault and fully support the students and staff that have made their voices heard. Though he cannot be, and shouldn’t be, fired for his statements, at the very least the community will do everything they can to hold him accountable for his words.
Mitchell Langbert, you are indeed protected by the First Amendment and are free to post what you like on your blog. So I’ll also exercise my First Amendment right to free speech and say this: You’re a piece of shit.
*For anyone who is interested in the full post (with its later amendment at the beginning), but doesn’t want to give him the web traffic, use the link here.
Wonderful blog post! I liked your use of turning the First Amendment back around on him.
I agree it is difficult because he is at a public institution and has tenure. In general, I think tenure is not necessarily the best program because it creates situations like this.
Whether he will be fired or not is up to the institution, but it is clear from the current backlash on the campus that the First Amendment will not protect him from student opinions, as their opinions are protected, too.