Monday, March 22, 2021

Yet another, much more serious academic freedom violation at the University of San Diego School of Law

Readers may recall that the last USD Law Dean did not understand academic freedom, but his transgressions pale by comparison to this new incident with a new Dean, Robert Schapiro.

The background:   USD law professor Tom Smith posted about the alleged dischonesty of the Chinese government, including the possibility that the coronavirus emerged from a Chinese government lab in Wuhan.   Professor Smith quipped:  "If you believe that the coronavirus did not escape from the lab in Wuhan, you have to at least consider that you are an idiot who is swallowing whole a lot of Chinese cock swaddle."  I confess I'd never heard the phrase "cock swaddle" before, but in context the meaning clear:   the Chinese government is spinning and concealing information.

Unbelievably, students complained, misreading this as a slur aimed at Chinese people.  Even more remarkably, the Dean treated the complaint seriously and an "investigation" is allegedly under way.  

Faculty colleagues of Professor Smith wrote to the Dean as follows:

The faculty member in question made a political comment in forceful language. He has the right and perhaps the obligation as a citizen and an academic to comment on matters of public concern such as the Chinese government's handling of COVID, and to do so in evocative and forceful language. No fair, much less lawyerly way of reading what he wrote would conclude anything other than that "Chinese cock swaddle" was referring to propaganda of the Chinese government and surely not denigrating people of Chinese origin or descent. The context makes this perfectly clear.


Blog posts by academics fall within the bounds of academic freedom as defined by the AAUP. Student concerns about discrimination should always be considered soberly. Yet, an academic institution committed to free inquiry cannot allow misplaced accusations of bigotry to become an all-purpose tool for silencing critical comment. To allow such accusations to undermine academic freedom ultimately ensures an environment of fear and suspicion for all members of the academic community, undermining rather than ensuring a welcoming and respectful discourse. Describing the disputed comments in this case as "offensive language in reference to people from China" of a piece with "hate crimes directed against the Asian and Pacific Islander (API) community [and] racist commentary" inevitably creates the impression that judgment has been rendered in advance and the outcome of the promised review has been predetermined.


We are concerned that treating these complaints the way you are doing validates student reactions and strained interpretations that are misguided, that reflect a lack of critical thinking, and that will chill faculty members' teaching and scholarship. We sincerely hope it will be possible to work together to find a better way.

This is all well-said.   The Dean has made a serious error, which will mar his entire tenure if he does not reverse course quickly.   He should have pointed out to the students their error, and explained to them the core principles of academic freedom.  This isn't a close case.

(Thanks to Nadine Strossen for first calling this to my attention.)

UPDATE:  Here is the letter a student group sent to Professor Smith.   Rather than thinking that Professor Smith was deploying a slur against Chinese people, the students in fact think that there is a causal connection between his blog post and anti-Asian-American violence, such that he should apologize for speculating about this topic.  In a way, this is even more surprisng:  have the students learned so little about causation, harm, and responsibility in their legal education?

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