Civility, Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom

Philip A. Pecorino, Ph.D.

Queensborough Community College, CUNY

October , 2014

What is going on?

Across the nation the calls for greater “civility” in public discourse have been increasing and along with them there are now the voices of concern over the consequences of such calls and the use of such exhortations to chill free speech.  In the academy there is concern for academic freedom.

There have been a series of cases across the nation wherein claims about objectionable discourse result in actions against faculty and students for expressing their academic judgments and position on matters of some import.  Many believe that freedom of speech and Academic Freedom have been jeopardized or violated by words and actions offered under the guise of promoting more civil discourse.

Here is one form of expression of the concerns and possible threats:

1.       Faculty expressing themselves in a manner displeasing to the university or college administration are deemed to have displayed a lack of civility or proper decorum.  The "tone" or "manner" of their discourse is offensive to the sensibilities of those in authority.

2.       Such behavior on the part of the offending faculty is deemed to be uncivil or conduct unbecoming a member of the faculty by the chancellor or the president acting unilaterally and individually. 

3.        Lack of civility or violation of some unwritten code of "civility"  or “conduct unbecoming a member of the faculty” in many institutions and in some of the recent cases constitutes grounds for disciplinary action against faculty.

4.       So, if faculty express themselves on matters where Academic Freedom is expected to prevail but do so in a manner displeasing to the administration, then disciplinary actions can be taken against faculty who so displease the authorities by the manner or tone of their discourse.

Therein, is constituted but one form of the assault upon and violation of the Academic Freedom of faculty and the right to  freedom of speech.

The “Civility” Craze Sweeping the Nation and Higher Education  

In “Pleas for Civility Meet Cynicism  by Peter Schmidt, there is described the current phenomena being evidenced by college administrators. In that work he reports that:

Henry F. Reichman, chairman of the American Association of University Professors’ Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, who has suggested on the AAUP blog Academe that charges of incivility are being used to silence today’s faculty members in the same way that accusations of communist sympathies were used to silence them during the red scare of the 1940s and 1950s.

In an interview this week, Mr. Reichman said he perceives "a growing trend" in which college administrations are citing a need to maintain civility "whenever there is controversial speech that people don’t like."

It is noted that “Advocates of academic freedom have long been skeptical of efforts to promote civility on the campus, fearing that they represent a veiled attempt to squelch debate.

Among the recent events bringing attention to the trending use of demands for civility threatening freedom of speech and academic freedom was the recent action of the Chancellor of the University of California at Berkley who maintains that free speech requires civility! by Jessica Chasmar - The Washington Times - Sunday, September 7, 2014

Chancellor Nicholas Dirks at the University of California, Berkeley sent an email to faculty, staff and students on Friday, arguing that civility is a prerequisite for free speech. In it he wrote:” “As a consequence, when issues are inherently divisive, controversial and capable of arousing strong feelings, the commitment to free speech and expression can lead to division and divisiveness that undermine a community’s foundation,” he wrote. 

Popehat called that last statement by Mr. Dirks “legally incoherent and misleading.”

Applicable to the situation are observations found in  “Wild Words, Brain Worms, and Civility September 14, 2014 in the New York Times    by CUNY’s  Paul Krugman who has written that:

civility is a gesture of respect — and sure enough, the loudest demands for civility come from those who have done nothing to earn that respect.”

 “And if you look at the uncivil remarks by people like, well, me, you’ll find that they are similarly aimed at people arguing in bad faith. I talk now and then about zombie and cockroach ideas. Zombies are ideas that should have been killed by evidence, but keep shambling along — e.g. the claim that all of Europe’s troubled debtors were fiscally irresponsible before the crisis; cockroaches are ideas that you thought we’d gotten rid of, but keep on coming back, like the claim that Keynes would never have called for fiscal stimulus in the face of current debt levels (Britain in the 1930s had much higher debt to GDP than it does now). Well, what I’m doing is going after bad-faith economics — economics that keeps trotting out claims that have already been discredited.

Nor are zombies and cockroaches the only kinds of bad faith; the worst, as far as I’m concerned, involves refusing to take responsibility for your actual statements.

On the right observers such as Rush Limbaugh have described the calls for civility as a form of censorship which the defenders of the US Constitution and freedom of speech decry.  He is vigorously vociferous in describing how calls for civility in discourse appear to be originating from those who are allied with actions and policies being criticized.  Limbaugh raises the question of how are people to respond to situations in which outrageous acts have been committed against them or their ideals?  Is all discourse of a forceful nature to be termed “uncivil” and condemned?

Suppose a faculty member is reacting to action on the part of others in the department or the college that deny rights to which the faculty are entitled over the course of years and to their repeated dismissals of polite attempts to raise how violations of bylaws were happening to the detriment of the faculty of the department. Suppose that faculty member over time used language that became more forceful discourse and stronger in tone and was done in the presence of colleagues, not a one of whom cautioned more moderate speech. Suppose faculty involved in the exchanges supported the faculty member who they saw as speaking on their behalf and even championing the cause of faculty rights and academic freedom. What can the action of an administrator be who seeks to punish that champion for the struggle beign waged to secure those rights with heavy penalties other than an act of censorship and violation of the free speech and academic freedom of faculty.

Conservative Scott Kirwin describes in his Razor cases where concern over civility results in censorship, either from the bottom-up or top-down.   When the acts of sanction come from the administration it is top-down.  This is the far more offensive form than from the bottom-up wherein colleagues might pressure a colleague to refrain from some forms of speech.

So broadly have the cries for civility in discourse spread and taken their toll on freedom of expression that reactions have taken place that are quite strong and evidencing what Limbaugh thought would be in order.  In  “Universities need less civility and more ‘shit‑kicking’  September 11, 2014  Dennis Hayes, a professor of Education, writes, that :

One way of silencing free speech is not to attack what is said but to attack the tone, attitude or demeanour of the speaker. It is a convenient way of telling people to ‘shut up’, and this is something Dirks and many other university officials realise. Indeed, it is becoming impossible for academics to challenge any of the prevailing trends in universities without the charge of ‘incivility’ being made. Today, it’s not considered ‘civil’ to challenge management’s ideas, however wrongheaded or destructive they may be. If you don’t believe me, look no further than the case of Professor Thomas Docherty, a well-known critic of contemporary higher education, who is facing disciplinary action at the University of Warwick for ‘sighing’, negative ‘body language’ and unwelcome use of ‘irony’.

Limbaugh while correct in noting the impact of cries for civility on free speech might not so appreciate an example of what he forewarns as applied to the actions of Karl Marx.  InCivility and Speech in the Modern University, 200 Years Ago in Germany  by Matthew Bunn

Demanding that scholarly writings be “earnest and modest,” the Prussian government in Marx’s view imposed on scholars’ work conditions that had nothing whatsoever to do with truth. The tone of a work, Marx noted, is dictated by the nature of the subject—ridiculous things ought not be taken seriously, serious injustices not protested modestly.

This admonition is worthy of careful attention and respect:

Civility as a conversational virtue has much to recommend it. The enforcement of civility, however, especially among classes like academics particularly inclined to advance challenging ideas, should make us recall how the use of “tone” as a criteria for controlling discussion works. As the example of nineteenth-century German intellectuals suggests, what may appear an effort to reign in abusive language can quickly become a powerful tool for the suppression of speech. Let us all be civil—and accepting of a little incivility too.

In “Civility Does not Justify Censorship

Audrey Pietrucha ” writes 

The argument for free speech does not assume this right is without risk, but as a society we have determined that any negatives encountered through unregulated speech and expression are far outweighed by its positive value. It is through freedom of inquiry, thought and speech that we come to define our personal and philosophical approaches to government, both of society and self.

Civility begins with each of us and if we feel it should be better practiced it is our personal responsibility to determine and adhere to the standards of politeness we would expect of others.

Civility is seen as a device for censorship at the Northern Illinois University which is restricting students' access to certain websites . Orwellian University Blocks Students' Access to Harmful Sites, For 'Civility' -

NIU cites "common sense, decency, ethical use, civility, and security," as its various rationales for the policy. Yes, a public institution of higher learning believes that it is just common sense—and ethical—to dissuade students from visiting websites deemed harmful by administrators

In Free Speech and Civility, a college student at North Carolina State, Derek Spicer, describes how he learned that that “civility” is the latest buzzword in the lexicon of reactionary administrators. He observed that:

the civility statement called for students to “speak to each other in a civil manner, refrain from displaying items that are disrespectful and hurtful to others, and confront behavior or report to staff incidents of incivility or intolerance.” Asking people to be civil may seem like the appropriate thing to do; however, the statement caused some concerns on its own.”

 In reaction to the attempt to control speech on campus with vaguely worded phrases to be interpreted by those who would impose sanctions on offenders he learned that:

 “The lesson to take away from this is to be wary of college and university initiatives to promote civility and tolerance. More often than not, they are very vague and tend to punish those with a minority viewpoint.“

In his “A Civility Manifesto”  Cary Nelson 10-10-14  claims that :

University presidents who urge civility are not trying to stifle dissent or suppress speech. They are trying to make the campus an oasis of sanity. They are trying to urge faculty and students to showcase productive dialogue. That is part of what higher education owes the country. That is part of the cultural and political difference higher education can make.

But he clearly states that :” Uncivil students and faculty at a university should not be punished.”

He advocates what appears to be quite in order when he writes that:

. Voluntary civility is the best way to conduct difficult debates, but it is not a limit on permissible speech. Faculty members need to teach by example. They need to take the lead in demonstrating what good citizenship entails

In his “Civility and Free Speech  reply to Nelson the AAUP's Henry Reichman cautions us that:

It's one thing to encourage civil conduct and reasoned discourse, quite another to regulate expression in the name of such encouragement. But that is precisely what too many college and university administrators and trustees are threatening to do. The threat to free speech rights is real.

Further he states:

The expressive weapons of those in power and those without power almost always differ. It is usually the powerless whose voices must be shrill, who may break rules to be heard, who, in short, may be uncivil. Civility, however, can be a privilege of the powerful, whose control over institutions often leads them to silence opponents instead of engaging them. As Greg Lukianoff of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education noted, in his experience "campus administrators are most likely to deem as 'uncivil' speech that criticizes them or the university’s sacred cows." 

Reichman sounds the warning call when he notes that the urgings of civility in discourse  can and often do “ show undeniable and dangerous signs of becoming requirements. And such requirements may threaten academic freedom and free speech as much as any loyalty oath.“

Why is it that the calls for civility and actions to enforce a civility code originate with those who have authority over others and with regard to, as it happens in every case, positions or proposals or criticisms with which they are not in agreement either on their own or resulting from pressures upon them?  Why is it that those deemed to have been uncivil are often without power and too often the victims of it?

Those who protested violations of civil rights often used speech and actions that were deemed “uncivil” by the empowered perpetrators of gross injustices and those who enjoyed benefits from them.  Once again there appears the effort to silence those who would speak against what they perceive to be injustices and denials of basic rights and freedoms for themselves and for others.

John Stuart Mill argued (On Liberty, Chapter Two) against those who would call for civility in speech and who would act against ‘vituperative’ speech.  Obvious to him, and to many others, is that such calls are the weapons of those with power:

‘With regard to what is commonly meant by intemperate discussion, namely invective, sarcasm, personality, and the like, the denunciation of these weapons would deserve more sympathy if it were ever proposed to interdict them equally to both sides; but it is only desired to restrain the employment of them against the prevailing opinion: against the unprevailing they may not only be used without general disapproval, but will be likely to obtain for him who uses them the praise of honest zeal and righteous indignation.’

In her wide ranging critique of civility police and call for strong action and language in the face of injustice and discrimination ,” Civility Disobedience”, ( ) Tav Nyong’o 18 Aug 2014 observes that:

 Creative disobedience to compulsory civility isn’t any kind of guarantee. But without its wild resources we would be greatly impoverished to wage the kind of struggles we are in the midst of now.

Sometimes it needs to be reiterated that “ Dialogue Is Important, Even When It’s Impoliteas observed by  Ryan M. Milner

Incivility is a difficult problem for Americans, because its underlying issues are social. But restrictive gatekeeping just serves to dampen the generative value of diverse voices engaging. The impulse to silence can be just as uncivil as the trolling that inspired it.

"When administrators urge us to be models of civility they are doing exactly what their job requires," Cary Nelson declares and Reichman agrees.  Nonetheless, those administrators who wish to cite faculty for being uncivil in one way or another might themselves be judged to be unfair, one sided, overreaching and petty and uncivil in their dampening of open and free discourse.  This is not how educators aspire to act, nor what they should model for their students.   Surely, educators are capable of behaving better than this. What appears to be rude, harassing and of a non-collegial nature and even to be insulting , hostile and personal by one person may be seen as strong language made necessary by the particularly egregious repeated behavior of others refusing to acknowledge the rights of faculty colleagues.  The use of the term “civility” or the claim that some speech within the academy is “uncivil” should not be used to chill speech and the exercise of Academic Freedom to express academic judgments or to defend the rights of faculty.  Doing so would be “uncivil”.

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Civility Manifesto by Cary Nelson 10-10-14 Inside Higher Education

Civility and Free Speech By  Henry Reichman     October 14, 2014 Inside Higher Education

Civility Disobedience  by Tav Nyong’o,  18 Aug 2014 | Bully Bloggers

Orwellian University Blocks Students' Access to Harmful Sites, For 'Civility' - Hit & Run :

Free Speech and Civility | The John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy

Universities need less civility and more ‘shit-kicking’ | Down with campus censorship! | Education | Free speech | spiked

 ‘Civility’ doesn’t excuse censorship The Daily Eastern News : Staff Editorial:

Civility and Racism at the University of Michigan | Student Union of Michigan

Pleas for Civility Meet Cynicism  by Peter Schmidt 

 Dialogue Is Important, Even When It’s Impolite  Ryan M. Milner  New York Times

Civility and Speech in the Modern University, 200 Years Ago in Germany



Philip Pecorino teaches philosophy and ethics at Queensborough Community College of the City University of New York.  If you have questions or comments about this article, please contact him at