The Volokh Conspiracy

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Free Speech

Thoughtcrime at Georgetown? "It Is … Wrong for Faculty to Be Thinking—Not Just Speaking—…"

... about there being disproportionate number of black students near the bottom of a class.


I wanted to pass along an exchange I had with a Georgetown law professor, related to the Georgetown adjunct's dismissal for saying to a colleague, "a lot of my lower [graded students] are blacks" (see this post). The professor wrote,

For what it's worth, I think both that the sentiments expressed by the adjunct in that video were wrong, and that the dean was correct to dismiss her.

I responded,

As to the adjunct's sentiments being wrong, do you mean that the factual assertion—that the bottom of the class contains a disproportionate number of black students—is wrong? Or that it's correct but that it's wrong for faculty members to say so?

The faculty member responded in turn,

In my experience, it is factually incorrect. It is also in my view wrong for faculty to be thinking—not just speaking—along those lines, because it will tend to create the very facts that it purports to describe.

I appreciate the disagreement on the factual question. As I mentioned in my original post, there had been nationwide aggregate evidence gathered on this in the 1990s, and discussed seriously in the mid-2000s by scholars with different normative viewpoints. But perhaps things have dramatically changed, or are different at the Georgetown law school. It would be great if Georgetown could shed light on that dispute by distributing aggregate data on its students' grades, broken down by race.

But I'm more interested in the professor's normative judgment: that it is wrong for university faculty to think that such a thing might be the case, to the point that letting slip the fact that you think this is a fireable offense. Indeed, if taken seriously, that normative judgment would preclude any discussion of the factual question, because even open-mindedly considering the factual question whether disproportionate numbers of black students tend to get lower grades would risk "wrong … thinking."

I appreciate that, say, some churches might excommunicate a member for wrong thoughts, or for speech that reveals the presence of wrong thoughts. I just didn't think that this was seen as a proper position for a university.

I recognize, of course, that thoughts lead to deeds, and that thinking in a particular way could lead one, even subconsciously, to illegally discriminate:

  • A professor who is thinking about these racial disparities might come to a black student's paper expecting it to be bad, and subtly undervaluing it as a result.
  • A professor who is thinking about "white privilege" might come to a white student's paper with a sense that the white student has been unfairly getting more than the student deserved, and subtly undervalue the student's work as a result.
  • A professor who is thinking about how conservative evangelical Christians have what the professor thinks to be a foolish worldview and a harmful set of moral beliefs might undervalue that student's paper.
  • A professor who is thinking that Israel is evil might undervalue the paper of a student whom he knows to be of Israeli national origin.
  • A professor who is thinking contemptuous thoughts of Republicans or Democrats might undervalue papers from students who are known to adhere to those parties. (D.C. law, which governs Georgetown, bans discrimination by universities against students based on political party membership, and the First Amendment generally does the same for public universities, such as UCLA.)

There are ways of dealing in part with this problem, of course: One that law schools generally use is blind grading (which also deals with many other forms of bias). But of course that's not perfect, for instance because it doesn't work well in classes, such as many seminars, where students write papers under a professor's close supervision. The regrettable reality is that there sometimes will be subjective, unblinded evaluation of students' work and therefore the risk of all sorts of improper discrimination.

Yet the tradition of American universities is that punishing faculty for "thinking … along [potentially dangerous] lines" is not the right remedy for such problems; likewise for punishing faculty for speaking along such lines. The point of a university is that people can and should think about all the options, dangerous as such thoughts might be, because it is only by considering those options that our knowledge can advance.

As I mentioned in my original post, Georgetown University's official policy statement (based on the Chicago Principles) makes that especially clear:

Georgetown University is committed to free and open inquiry, deliberation and debate in all matters, and the untrammeled verbal and nonverbal expression of ideas. It is Georgetown University's policy to provide all members of the University community, including faculty, students, and staff, the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn.

The ideas of different members of the University community will often and naturally conflict. It is not the proper role of a University to insulate individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive. Deliberation or debate may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or ill conceived.

It is for the individual members of the University community, not for the University as an institution, to judge the value of ideas, and to act on those judgments not by seeking to suppress speech, but by openly and vigorously contesting those arguments and ideas that they oppose.

It's hard to see how punishing "faculty [for] thinking [and] speaking … along [supposedly improper] lines" can be consistent with that statement, or with broader principles of free inquiry.