September 9, 2003:
&Phi. LESSONS OF THE WEB-LOG CONTROVERSY.
Here is what happened.
For some months, I have kept a web-log, with few readers, as a sort of commonplace
book. The Volokh Conspiracy raised the interesting question of why people object to
homosexuals as schoolteachers, but not Hindus, since idolatry is a greater sin than
sodomy. I replied with some arguments distinguishing Hindus from homosexuals, and The
Volokh Conspiracy linked to my reply and answered it. My guess is that someone at IU
read the Volokh Conspiracy, followed to my web-log, and complained to friends at IU,
who circulated the news of my web-log by email.
Soon the Dean's Office at my business school was getting lots of complaints about my
web-log. The Dean asked me to meet him late on a Thursday afternoon to talk about it.
We talked, and I offered to move my web-log off the IU computers, and to keep fairly
tight-lipped, until the Dean had time to reflect and to check with the University about
whether my web-log was in violation of IU policy. He checked, learned that my web-log
did not violate IU policy, and called me back the next day to say that I could move my
web-log back, which I did.
The student newspaper got hold of the story, and that (I imagine) alerted the local
newspaper, the Associated Press, and a local radio talk show. The blogworld
also learned about it. The University didn't actually shut me down, so the story isn't
as big as it might have been. I haven't heard of any IU faculty members saying publicly
I should be shut down (the student newspaper story "Faculty react to Web log decision"
doesn't actually quote any faculty, just staff). If I remember correctly (it's hard
because of the volume) I haven't gotten any emails from faculty members saying so
(except perhaps one person whose signature said "PhD" but not "Professor"). There are
many people calling for me to be shut down, but they are students or staff members. The
IU Vice President for Student Development and Diversity wrote a student newspaper op-
ed, "A teachable moment for us
all," that made the good point that controversies like these are important to
teach students the value of free discussion and so forth.
What can we learn from this?
- There are lots of people around who don't believe in freedom of speech, and,
in fact, don't seem to even understand why it might be valuable. They see things in
terms of power.
- It is a good idea to give administrators some breathing space. When hit with a lot
of people complaining, they need some time to think. (This feeling should be familiar
to those of us who grade midterms.) I could have refused to voluntarily move my web-
log the first day, gone to the Web, and caused a big stink. But that would have hurt my
university, and would, in fact, have created a false impression. IU *did* do the right
thing, the process didn't even take very long, and it didn't take any pressure from
me or outsiders. On the other hand, if IU had decided, after due deliberation, to shut
me down, I would still have the opportunity to argue my case before them and complain to
In light of this, I think I made a mistake last spring when the Indiana Association
of Scholars, of which I am a director, issued a press release criticizing a memo the
dean of the law school had issued in the Dillon stolen flyers incident. Her memo was
not the right response to the situation, but she was brand-new in the position of dean,
she issued the memo in a hurry, and only a student, not faculty members, had told her
directly that it was the wrong response. That is important because students, being
young, are usually not good at explaining such things. One of us should have talked
with her first, and we should have issued our press release only if she didn't remedy
the situation. But the IAS is a young organization, it was the busy end of the
semester, and so we rushed things.
- It's important to be willing to put up with disapproval. The biggest obstacle to
conservatives voicing their opinions is not losing their jobs, death threats, or pistol
whippings: it's just the natural human distaste for doing something that other people
dislike. This is quite interesting: why should I care if Mr. X thinks I am evil if I
think Mr. X is wrong on that and everything else? Yet I do, to some extent. This has to
be resisted. Here, again, it's useful to have teaching experience. Any large required
undergraduate or MBA course in economics is going to have a few students who think the
professor is unjust and capricious in his grading. Denial of special requests will also
produce sour feelings, as I remember from the semester when my final exam was
scheduled by the university for the last day of exam week. When I turned down the
requests of students to take the exam at a special early time, the students didn't
complain to me, but I got two long phone calls from irate parents. A mother said I had
no heart and called me names in Yiddish. A father informed me that he was a lawyer,
that it would be really expensive to change his child's airplane tickets, and, after
failing to goad me into saying something he could use against me in talking to my
chairman or dean, said that I was clearly such a cold person that at least he didn't
have to fear that I would retaliate against his daughter. So as a professor I'm used to
- A lot of people don't understand the idea of a web-log. They confuse web-logs with
research papers. No-- a web-log can (but need not be) more reliable than a newspaper,
because it can have multiple cites and can have corrections more easiliy, but by their
nature, web-logs are not going to be as reliable as scholarly articles. They don't get
multiple drafts, they are not presented at seminars for criticism, referees don't
suggest improvements, and they aren't screened by journal editors. Think of a web-log as
being more like an intelligent conversation taking place in a good library.
- There are lots of people around whose idea of a convincing argument is "I'm
offended," and whose idea of witty repartee is "You're stupid!". This is something
scholars tend to forget, except when grading certain kinds of student essays.
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