Hiltzik on Civility

Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times is one of my favorite newspaper columnists.  This week he ran an excellent piece on what I’ve started calling the emerging “civility doctrine” in higher education.  Here are some excerpts:

When someone in power praises the principle of free speech, it’s wise to be on the lookout for weasel words. The phrase “I favor constructive criticism,” is weaseling. So is, “You can express your views as long as they’re respectful.” In those examples, “constructive” and “respectful” are modifiers concealing that the speaker really doesn’t favor free speech at all.

The targets of free speech never think it’s constructive or respectful. Quite the contrary. . . .

A major problem with using words like “respect” and “civility” to mark the boundaries of free speech protections is that they don’t have fixed definitions. One person can be deeply affronted (or claim to be) by language that another finds perfectly innocuous. And it’s one thing to set standards for expression in private forums — comment pages on websites, for example — and quite another to impose them as conditions for legal protection of free speech. . . .

Insistence on “civility” is a weapon, and it’s almost always wielded by those in power against those whose free speech needs protection.

Calling civility “the biggest weasel word of all,” Hiltzik specifically takes on both UIUC Chancellor Wise in the Salaita case and UC Berkeley Chancellor Dirks, employing the words of Berkeley Free Speech Movement icon Mario Savio to turn the tables on the latter’s attempt to “commemorate”  that movement by claiming free speech and civility to be “two sides of the same coin.”

You can (and should) read the entire piece here:  http://www.latimes.com/business/hiltzik/la-fi-mh-free-speech-civility-20140909-column.html

3 thoughts on “Hiltzik on Civility

  1. Of course civility is not a limit on freedom of speech.

    And, simultaneously, of course speech – including lack of civility – can be used to evaluate the appropriateness of a hire.

    Freedom of speech self-evidently protects a hypothetical professorial candidate who had tweeted about his views that blacks were inferior to whites. Yet I doubt many here would contend that hypothetical candidate ought not have his racist views taken into account in the hiring process.

    No, Stephen Salaita is not a racist, and his tweets were not racist. But anyone who cannot see the problem with tweeting a hope that thousands of men, women and children “go missing” – in the context of a search for 3 of those people who were kidnapped and, as it turns out, murdered – really has no business commenting on this issue in the first place.

    I have yet to see a defense of Mr. Salaita that adequately contends with that abhorrent tweet. Personally, I have no problem with his being denied a job on the basis of that tweet alone – just as I’d have no problem with denying a candidate who posted a similar comment about Palestinians being denied a job.

    At the end of the day, freedom of speech means freedom from prior restraint and government punishment for speech. It does not mean freedom from all consequences, regardless of how abhorrent the speech is. And civility remains a value to be treasured.

    • Of course civility is a limit on freedom of speech if a public university is punishing people based upon it. As for the “go missing” tweet, here’s one analysis of it, and certainly many diplomats wish that there were not Israeli settlements on the West Bank. “Go missing” is not a call for mass murder. I have yet to see a definition of civility that is much more than a slogan.

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