Provost Peter Lange on 'Free Speech and Speaking Freely'


When the events of the spring unfolded we witnessed an unimagined intensity of vituperative language and distasteful and deeply hurtful caricatures of Duke students, our campus and its culture, our Durham community and our relationship to our neighbors in the city. The wave of attacks lasted for weeks in the media, on the emails and in the blogs. It was deeply disturbing, in many ways for our students, faculty and whole community. It inflamed and polarized rhetoric on our campus as well. Over the months and with the unfolding of events, these types of attacks have subsided.

Meanwhile some of our faculty, primarily African-American but not only so, have been under repeated attacks in personal emails and in blogs. The primary precipitant -- in the sense that the content offended those writing the blogs or sending the emails -- was the advertisement signed by 88 of Duke's faculty and printed in the Duke Chronicle. Subsequently, the connection to the advertisement often has become attenuated and the ad has become rhetorically transformed into and manipulated as a symbol of all that was thought to be extreme and bad about Duke faculty, and, in some cases, universities more generally. At the same time, the emails and blogs attacking what people wrote or said have sometimes been replaced by personal attacks, some of them directed at the faculty member's scholarship or intellectual credentials, some viciously personal, still others openly threatening or racist.

These attacks through emails and blogs have prompted appeals that the administration, and I, as Provost come to the "defense" of, our faculty. Yet, until today I have said nothing publicly about this. I want today to explain the sources of my concerns, the reasons for my previous reticence to speak out and why I am now doing so. I am under no illusion that this will quiet the distasteful clamor from beyond Duke. I do hope to contribute to a restoration of engaged, sometimes intense, but also mutually respectful dialogue on our campus.

As we all are aware blogs and email have "democratized" communication; anyone with access to a computer can get in the game as writer or spectator. In many ways this is a very good thing, for it reduces the elitism of "publication" and the control of opinion by opinion "sellers". Nonetheless, this "democracy" is also permissive of saying almost anything, about almost anyone or anything, using any language, no matter how distasteful, disrespectful or dismissive. We can spread our ideas faster, and without the mediation of others, but we can also control neither their dispersion nor the nature and distribution of reactions to them. In fact, if those reactions distort the account of what we have said, there is likely no way to correct the record for the large number of people who may have secondarily received those distorted interpretations.

This is a condition of our era. No one can provide relief and these conditions do not change the basic fact that one must take care to say what one intends and be prepared to be accountable for and to defend the substance of one's ideas, and correct or incorrect interpretations of them. Free speech must continue to be vigorously defended, but speaking freely has become potentially more consequential.

And here my first concern. I do not believe the extreme of this condition is productive of the best virtues of free speech. It can come to inhibit speaking freely or leave free speech on controversial issues too much to the thick-skinned or insensitive. The virtues of free speech are that it fosters individual intellectual development through the process of the combat of ideas, that it encourages the honing of thought, that it enriches the intellectual life of the community, that it allows for the challenge of dogma and of authority and that through all these effects it improves the quality of our private and public life and, at times, the quality of public policy.

Yet if the entry barriers to speaking freely are raised too high by the fear of public retribution and vilification, are we not in danger that some of the virtues of freedom of speech will be diminished without commensurate gain? There is no solution to this conundrum other than self- and other-awareness and apposite self-restraint, not of ideas but of rhetoric. Regulatory measures—other than individual, self-regulatory ones—are to be excluded.

Any reading of the rhetoric, and of the blogger and email traffic, on all sides of the lacrosse case, however, makes clear that at many times such self-awareness, not to speak of self-restraint, has given way to a speech intended not to clarify but to embarrass, punish, demean or humiliate, a result which is likely to diminish the quality of speech over time and to undermine the advantages to individuals and the community of a free, open, intense, engaged but also respectful debate.

My second concern is the way public discussion in the blogs and emails often moved from characterizations of what faculty have said or are alleged to have said to attacks on their persons, on their motives and even to hateful personal, threatening or racist rants. I have seen emails and blogs which attribute the views of a faculty member to the alleged weakness of his academic record, or the fact that she studies subject matters which the writer finds objectionable, or that attribute to the faculty member hidden motives of self-interest. These criticisms are often couched in language that reflects profound disrespect not only for the faculty member but for the university.

Worthy of special mention -- because they are so distasteful and beyond any form of acceptable speech - are the emails that I have seen in recent months which are nothing more, or less, than the anonymous racist -- personally vilifying - rants sent primarily but not only to African American faculty members. Faculty members, like all of us, are responsible for what they say and must be prepared for the consequences of speaking freely. However, the rhetoric of these emails -- so easily sent and far too easily dismissed as ravings from the fringe - are profoundly disturbing and sometimes debilitating to those who receive them.

But, what does it do to our community when a subset of its members is singled out by their race, or any other quality other than the quality of their thinking, for speaking up? What does it do to our community when a sector of it feels tempted to withdraw because members of that sector are being pummeled for exercising their rights? What does it do to our community's ability to address serious issues within it with intelligence, balance, integrity, forthrightness and effectiveness when one or more sectors of it no longer feel like being a part of the community? And finally, what does it do to the likelihood that others in our community will speak their mind when they see that this has become the climate of speech, the potential consequence of speaking freely? When one sector of the community is isolated and publicly vilified, it tends to have a chilling effect on others, even those who are in profound disagreement. No one wants to think that speaking freely is likely to engender such attacks. Better, then, they may well think, to say nothing. But then we are all diminished and so too is our community.

This is not acceptable. All of you as faculty -- like all others in our community - have the right to express yourselves on issues of public concern like any other citizen. Additionally, as a leading and enduring members of the Duke community, you have a privileged status in expressing yourselves on issues of the university, the campus and the campus culture. The other side of this coin is you are part of a community with many different people and points of view, and it is our shared responsibility to extend mutual respect to each other so that speech may be as free and open as possible. We must ensure this if all voices are to be heard, all opinions counted in as we debate issues at the heart of our community and our mission.

Thus my third concern: how we talk to and with each other. Universities are indeed communities. In a university like Duke with as much emphasis on interdisciplinarity, and hence on working with faculty to whom we are not bound by departmental affiliation and proximate space, and a university dependent on effective faculty governance, speaking freely and showing mutual respect—being good speakers and good listeners— giving each other the benefit of the doubt and probing further when someone says something which perplexes or distresses - are essential if debate is to be open, ideas and values advanced and honed, and campus life and the community enriched.

In recent months we have lost some of our ability to exercise these qualities in speaking with one another. In the face of this decay some have become strident, harsh or unhearing; others have retreated from the public arena. There has been a diminished community debate, a narrowing of those willing to speak freely, a reduced sense of shared purpose to overcome our troubles, a loss of the confidence—so often a strength of Duke—that through a shared understanding and effort we can become a better institution.

Yet now we need those qualities and that confidence more than ever. If the Campus Culture Initiative, where discussions of substance and quality have been going on since June, is to produce a successful report this spring, we must renew our ability to speak to each other with candor and respect about the issues of importance to our community. To regain it, we will need to recapture the values that sustain and enrich speaking freely and listening attentively and respectfully that have served us so well in the past. When we hear things we don't like, even things with which we strongly disagree, we need to judge the substance and not the person, assume the better rather than the worse of intentions.

Finally, this brings me to the question of why the Provost has been silent as this situation has developed over the past few months. The answer is that I was concerned that public statements of defense of the rights of the faculty to speak in the face of the blogger and email attacks would only generate more of the same vituperative rhetoric which my speaking out would be intended to help quell. The merciless attention that the emailers and bloggers have been paying to every word uttered, syllabus crafted, and article authored suggested that an intervention by me might simply turn up the heat which seemed, at moments, to be cooling. Further, I feared that in the often tense and polarized atmosphere of our campus discourse, statements by the Provost, while intended to calm might simply further divide and be interpreted as "taking sides." This might well then run the danger of stifling other voices that needed to be heard. Finally, if the Provost is seen to be defending the content of the speech of faculty members, do we not run the danger that some will come to think it is the right and responsibility of the administration to monitor what faculty say?

Were these correct judgments? To tell you the truth, I do not know. They were taken in deep sincerity and with concern for those being hurt and real sadness at what was, and still is, happening to our community and its ability to reason together about the toughest, most divisive issues among us -- and what was happening to each of us and our zest to be a member of the Duke community. I do know that no decision to speak out at any time would have been without those same consequences of which I spoke earlier, some good and some undoubtedly bad.

But, if not before, why now? With the passing of time, the heat has not gone down. In the last weeks, faculty members have shared with me emails and blog material that is as merciless, distorted and vituperative as in the past. The cumulative damage of the months of attacks on some of our faculty and the distress of those who sympathize with them is exceeding the limits of prudence about provoking external reactions. It is the Provost's job to defend the fundamental value and values of the faculty and at some point refraining from that defense because it might produce more of the same becomes itself imprudent.

Third, we are entering the period when the Campus Culture Initiative will move from meetings room to the campus at large. Nothing about the developments in the lacrosse case diminishes the importance of paying critical attention to the culture on our campus and ways that it supports values that are central to our mission: inclusiveness, mutual respect, the personally and socially responsible use of alcohol, the effort to root out in our community attitudes or behaviors which reflect prejudice or disrespect based on race, gender, sexual preference or other group qualities, and the identification and elimination of structures that may foster such attitudes and behaviors.

Think what a challenging agenda this sets for us. We will not accomplish it all and we will not accomplish it quickly. But Duke has, through this process, the opportunity to be a leader. It is, therefore, even more important now that we regain the powers of self-critical, optimistic, respectful and broad-based collective debate which have stood us so well in the past. The faculty must be on point, along with the students, in how we think about and arrive at the appropriate measures of reform for our campus culture. That can only happen if we recall how to speak freely to each other as we have in our best moments.

To conclude, I wish the faculty well as we begin our new semester. We are here to teach, to study and to learn, and to do so at our best we need both the best climate possible on our campus and a degree of tranquility. May the new semester bring us much more of both.