Opinion
8:27 am
Fri September 6, 2013

Is ranting in university classrooms free speech?

Lessenberry essay for 9/6/13

One of this week’s more sensational stories involved a Michigan State University professor who was removed from teaching after delivering an inflammatory rant to a large lecture classroom, remarks somebody videotaped.

When the video surfaced, Republicans went ballistic. Many demanded that William Penn, a tenured professor of creative writing, be fired. Michigan State officials didn’t do that, and probably couldn’t. Originally, the whole point of tenure was to prevent someone from being fired for unpopular opinions.

However, State did yank Penn out of the classroom. He will continue to be paid, and presumably expected to continue his research and committee work, but someone else will teach his courses. The question is, how should we feel about this?

This is an issue of considerable concern to me, in that I professionally share my opinions with the public, I teach college students -- I am the head of journalism at Wayne State -- and what I do is made possible by the freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. 

I am intellectually and temperamentally against anything that threatens freedom of expression. I don’t know Professor Penn, but I would be yelling on his behalf if it seemed to me he had been removed for expressing political opinions of any kind -- right-wing or left-wing. I also think that it is both a professor‘s right and duty to make provocative statements and challenge students to think.

Penn told his class, in so many words, that certain people -- Republicans -- had exploited the country and didn’t want to pay their fair share. He also said the nation was full of “closet racists,” and told the students that if they were racists, “I’m coming after you.”

Well, it is very clear to me that there are people who exploit other people, and that there are a lot of racists, some of whom barely hide their racism. However, at least on the video I watched, the professor was expressing this in a hostile diatribe that seemed designed to intimidate anyone who would dare to disagree. Some of it included distasteful and gratuitous insults, about Ann Romney, for example, or “dead skin cells“ washing off “dead and dying“ old Republicans. That‘s not teaching, that’s ranting.

Marshall McLuhan, the famous scholar of media effects, used to say that “the medium is the message,” meaning, roughly, that the way in which information is delivered is as, or more important as what the message itself is.

If I were to lecture in a pink tutu next week, everybody would remember that, and nobody would remember a thing I said. If Professor Penn’s purpose was to get students to challenge their assumptions, he might have had more success by asking a series of provocative questions.

This was a creative writing class, and if he had eventually stopped and told the students to write a short story about a ranting jerk, that would have been different. But that doesn’t seem to have been what went on here. 

Based on what I know, I think Michigan State may have handled this appropriately. And I think it would be highly dangerous for anybody to make this a partisan political thing.