Scott Savage, the head reference librarian at Ohio State University at Mansfield, got in trouble because of a book. No, he didn’t run afoul of theUSA PATRIOT Act, which infamously allows the government to subpoena library records. He suggested an assignment for a freshman reading list that two gay professors found offensive.
The controversy started last March. After the university decided to introduce a common reading experience program in which all freshmen would be required to read the same book as an extracurricular activity, Savage volunteered to serve on the committee to select the book. He took exception to the fact that many suggested texts were, as he said in an e-mail exchange with other panelists, “ideologically or politically or religiously polarizing.” When one member responded that the university had not only a right but “an obligation” to polarize on some issues, Savage pointedly offered, “in that spirit,” four conservative books. One of them was The Marketing of Evil: How Radicals, Elitists, and Pseudo-Experts Sell Us Corruption Disguised as Freedom, by David Kupelian.
As the title suggests, the book is strong stuff. Kupelian, managing editor of the webzine WorldNetDaily, gives homosexuality a prominent place in his hierarchy of evil; according to the book’s promotional text, “the ‘gay rights’ movement—which transformed America’s former view of homosexuals as self-destructive human beings into their current status as victims and cultural heroes—faithfully followed an in-depth, phased plan laid out by professional Harvard-trained marketers.”
The reaction from Savage’s fellow committee members was equally strong. Two English professors, J. F. Buckley and Norman Jones, filed a complaint of harassment based on sexual orientation. Buckley claimed that Savage’s recommendation of the book made him “fearful and uneasy about being a gay man on this campus.”
Under threat of a lawsuit from the conservative Alliance Defense Fund, the university promptly cleared Savage of all charges in April. Yet the questions raised by this incident remain contentious and highly relevant. Was the attack on Savage a simple question of suppressing unpopular speech and trampling on religious liberty, or was his behavior in some way inappropriate?
Some commenters on the Volokh Conspiracy blog suggested a hypothetical situation: What if a librarian had suggested an anti-Semitic or racist book for the freshman reading list? How about, say, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a tome somewhat similar to The Marketing of Evil in attributing a vast and diabolical conspiracy to its target? As one commenter astutely pointed out, while most people would “agree that we have the right to punish others (at least socially) for racist or anti-Semitic comments,” the problem is that there is no consensus today on whether “being gay is morally the equivalent of being Jewish.”
Savage’s list, of course, seems to have been intended to make a point about “polarizing” texts, not to recommend the book for actual freshman reading. But the same questions would still apply if his suggestion had been serious.
To many social conservatives, the threat of action against Savage demonstrates the danger of equalizing sexual orientation with race, ethnicity, religion, or gender: It will stigmatize, marginalize, and effectively suppress beliefs that are still held by a large number of Americans and are sanctioned by traditional religion. Others would say that such beliefs are nothing but time-honored bigotry and should be relegated to society’s fringes, just as we have done with once-widespread racist beliefs.
Reading recommendations are only one instance of this tension. On many campuses, conservative religious groups have run into trouble because of their refusal to accept non-celibate gays as members or leaders. Legally, this issue is far from being settled. In April, a federal judge in California (a Bush appointee) ruled that the University of California’s Hastings College of Law could deny recognition to student groups which discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. The school thus remains free to deny official status and funds to the campus chapter of the Christian Legal Society, which bars people who engage in “unrepentant homosexual conduct.”
Last year in a dispute at Southern Illinois University, however, a federal appeals court ruled against the university and in favor of a similar group. And in May, another federal judge dismissed a lawsuit by a Christian fraternity against the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill—but mainly on the grounds that the university had already carved out an exception to its anti-discrimination rules to let political and religious groups screen members “on the basis of commitment to a set of beliefs.” Thus, a Christian group could not refuse admission to a student because she was gay, but could reject her because she did not subscribe to the view that homosexuality is sinful.
Those who support the student groups in such cases often base their position strictly on commitment to freedom of speech and association. In 2000, in an online colloquy hosted by The Chronicle of Higher Education, David French, an attorney representing Christian Fellowship student groups at Tufts University and Middlebury College, stated that his defense of free association would extend to a Bob Jones–type group that forbade interracial dating. (French is now with the Christian Alliance Defense Fund and represented Savage in his dispute with Ohio State.) Yet while French emphatically distanced himself from Bob Jones’ theological views, he was far more sympathetic to Christian Fellowship and branded as “ridiculous” the suggestion that the group was fostering “self-hate” among gay students by demanding that they renounce homosexuality as a sin.
So for French, and for many who ardently defend the right to hold anti-gay views, some forms of prejudice are more acceptable than others. But is the only alternative to that attitude a secular progressive orthodoxy that enthusiastically accepts a diversity of sexualities but rejects a diversity of sexual moralities? As UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh has pointed out, the presence of Scott Savage, a conservative Quaker who eschews cars and whose children are homeschooled, probably “adds more to the cultural diversity of the campus than does the presence and participation of most other faculty, students, and staff.”
It’s worth noting as well that campus sensitivities about hate speech do not extend to more politically correct forms of bigotry. A reference librarian who suggested one of the late Andrea Dworkin’s male-bashing rants for freshman reading would be very unlikely to face any repercussions. And while a recommendation of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion would undoubtedly be treated as either a very bad joke or a hate crime, an anti-Israel book with anti-Jewish overtones might pass muster.
Academic discourse surely needs fewer taboos, not more: Instead of closing off all debate on homosexuality, reopen more debate on other contentious issues. College students, and even more so college professors, should be tough enough to digest a book which argues that homosexuality should not be accepted as normal, or that male dominance is the proper social order, or that America is and should be a “Christian nation.” Whether such a book ought to be assigned as common reading for all freshmen is another question; but the idea that suggesting such an assignment should be grounds for a “hostile environment” complaint is absurd.
College students and professors should also be tough enough to tolerate in their midst campus groups that hold quaint and offensive views. If freedom of association means anything, a group of Christian students should be able to reject gays or to relegate women to subordinate roles. And other students, of course, should be free to shun the Christians. Here’s a good lesson for students to learn: In a free society, if some opinions are so hateful that they ought to be penalized, they should be penalized through social, not legal, sanctions.