Mises Daily Articles
My Battle With The Thought Police
Readers of this site probably know about my ordeal at my university, which has been covered quite extensively on this site and by the major mainstream press. Now that major combat operations have ended (to employ a phrase used by Bush in reference to Iraq...two years ago), I've had some time to reflect on what happened, why, and whether and to what extent I responded properly.
And so here are my thoughts on this incident that took my career as a professor of economics in a direction I would never have anticipated. Now that the case is more or less settled, I no longer feel bound by legal considerations to keep silent on important details. This article is the first to disclose the full details of the case.
Las Vegas prides itself for its tolerance and so does UNLV, its university. At the university, however, tolerance is selective. You may assert that white heterosexual males are responsible for all of mankind’s misery, that Castro’s Cuba is a great success story, that capitalism means exploitation, or that most university professors are liberals because conservatives are too stupid to teach. If anyone should complain about this, such complaint will be dismissed outright.
And rightly so. After all, the university is committed to academic freedom. Its faculty has the "freedom and an obligation … [to] discuss and pursue the faculty member’s subject with candor and integrity, even when the subject requires consideration of topics which may be politically, socially or scientifically controversial. … (a) faculty member…shall not be subjected to censorship or discipline by the University ... on grounds that the faculty member has expressed opinions or views which are controversial, unpopular or contrary to the attitudes of the University … or the community."
None of this applies to professors who dissent from socialist, statist, or culturally left-wing views, however, as I would find out.
In March of 2004, during a 75-minute lecture in my Money and Banking class on time preference, interest, and capital, I presented numerous examples designed to illustrate the concept of time preference (or in the terminology of the sociologist Edward Banfield of "present- and future-orientation"). As one brief example, I referred to homosexuals as a group which, because they typically do not have children, tend to have a higher degree of time preference and are more present-oriented. I also noted--as have many other scholars--that J.M Keynes, whose economic theories were the subject of some upcoming lectures, had been a homosexual and that this might be useful to know when considering his short-run economic policy recommendation and his famous dictum "in the long run we are all dead."
During my lecture no question was raised. (You can hear the same lecture, given some time later, on Mises.org.) However, two days later an informal complaint was filed by a student with the university’s affirmative action "commissar." The student claimed that he as a homosexual had been made to "feel bad" by my lecture. Based on this "evidence" the commissar, who, as I would find out only weeks later, was a former clergyman turned "certified" gay activist, called me at home to inform me that he would shut down my class if I continued making such remarks.
I agreed to meet the commissar in my office thinking that this would bring matters to a quick end. The student would be informed about the nature of a university and academic freedom, including his right to ask and challenge his professor. Instead, the commissar lectured me on what and how I was to teach my classes. I explained to him the difference between a professor and a bureaucrat and that he was overstepping his bounds, but to no avail. However, because the student had falsely claimed that my remarks had been about "all" homosexuals, I agreed to explain the difference between "all" and "average" statements during my next class.
In my next lecture I explained that when I say that Italians eat more Spaghetti than Germans for instance this does not mean that every Italian eats more Spaghetti than every German. It means that on the average Italians eat more Spaghetti than Germans.
Upon this the student filed a "formal" complaint. I had not taken his feelings seriously. He felt "hurt again"; and as he had learned from the commissar, feeling bad twice constituted a "hostile learning environment" (an offense that is not defined in the university by-laws). From then on the commissar made the student’s case his own. Every pretense of acting as a neutral mediator was abandoned, and he became a prosecutor.
In April I was ordered to appear before an administrative committee assembled by the commissar and to prove my statement. This was in clear violation of university rules: not only is there no provision for any "truth squad," but as bureaucrats the committee members were entirely unqualified for such a task.
However, I naïvely provided the requested evidence. My request to have the meeting taped was denied. During the hearing, which was conducted in a style reminiscent of the interrogations of politically suspect academics in communist countries or Nazi Germany, essentially only the commissar spoke.
My repeated request to hear witnesses was denied. One student, recommended by the complainant, was later secretly interviewed, but because her testimony contradicted what the commissar wanted to hear, it was suppressed. Furthermore, in his indictment, which I would not see until November, the commissar referred to a previous unrelated student complaint, but he suppressed the information that this complaint had been dismissed as without merit and actually resulted in an embarrassment for the university administration.
The provided evidence was brushed aside, because some of it had also allegedly appeared on anti-gay sites which I had never visited. Indeed, whatever I or anyone else said was irrelevant because the commissar had already found "proof" of my hostility in my writing.
In my book Democracy, The God That Failed I not only defend the right to discrimination as implied in the right to private property, but I also emphasize the necessity of discrimination in maintaining a free society and explain its importance as a civilizing factor. In particular, the book also contains a few sentences about the importance, under clearly stated circumstances, of discriminating against communists, democrats, and habitual advocates of alternative, non-family centered lifestyles, including homosexuals.
For instance, on p. 218, I wrote "in a covenant concluded among proprietors and community tenants for the purpose of protecting their private property, … no one is permitted to advocate ideas contrary to the very purpose of the covenant ... such as democracy and communism." "Likewise, in a covenant founded for the purpose of protecting family and kin, there can be no tolerance toward those habitually promoting lifestyles incompatible with this goal. … [violators] will have to be physically removed from society."
In its proper context these statements are hardly more offensive than saying that the Catholic Church should excommunicate those violating its fundamental precepts or that a nudist colony should expel those insisting on wearing bathing suits. However, if you take the statements out of context and omit the condition: in a covenant… then they appear to advocate a violation of rights.
My praise of discrimination was part of a frontal attack against what is sometimes called left-libertarianism--against the politics that equates liberty with libertinism, multiculturalism, and so-called civil rights as opposed to existence and enforcement of private-property rights. In retaliation, to discredit me as a "fascist," a "racist," a "bigot," etc., the left-libertarian smear-bund has routinely distorted my views by quoting the above passages out of context.
The commissar discovered these "quotes"--and voila! I was found guilty as charged. (Characteristically, upon challenge the commissar proved unable--also during a second hearing six months later--to cite on which page the alleged quotes appeared.)
An indictment, recommending a letter of reprimand and forfeiture of a week’s pay, was forwarded to my dean, who neither accepted nor rejected it but sent it to the provost. After waiting for more than 5 months, the provost acted likewise.
In November, he instructed the university code officer, who had been a member of the first inquisition committee, to send me the indictment, form another committee and order me to show up for a second trial. The committee was composed of the dean of natural sciences, the associate dean of the hotel college, a biology professor and the president of the student government. The code officer served as secretary and the commissar as prosecutor. I was accompanied by a lawyer, in response to which the university also sent a lawyer. No committee member had any knowledge of economics.
My lawyer’s request to have the meeting taped or have a court reporter present was denied. After the student explained about his hurt feelings, my lawyer asked where in the code a "hostile learning environment" was defined. Neither the code officer nor the university lawyer could answer the question because no such definition exists.
I read the above quoted passages regarding academic freedom and argued that my contractually granted rights had been infringed upon. I had spoken about my subject and beyond that I was not obliged to "prove" anything. In fact, my statement was hardly "controversial" but utterly reasonable in light of my adduced evidence. I again requested students be interviewed concerning my alleged "hostility," but again the request was ignored. I offered several student letters written on my behalf, but they were not admitted as evidence.
The committee members asked few if any questions; only the dean contributed some precious gems of political correctness. The most time was taken up by the commissar. In the meantime he had gathered information about me and my prominence and come to the conclusion that if he could silence me he could silence anyone. He set out on a tirade against me that in the judgment of my lawyer would have gotten him thrown out of any regular courtroom. After ranting for almost half an hour even the university lawyer had enough and told him to "Shut up," and when he continued, the lawyer admonished the committee chair to cut him off.
Two months later, at the end of January 2005, the code officer called my lawyer to inform him that the "peer" committee had affirmed the first committee’s "hostile environment" finding and would recommend to the provost a letter of reprimand and forfeiture of my next merit increase. There might be a little room for negotiation, but if I didn’t accept the offer even more serious punishment up to termination might be in the offing. My lawyer’s request to see the report was denied.
I rejected the offer and having until then been placed under a gag order, finally started a counteroffensive. I was put in contact with the ACLU Nevada, and though our political views are poles apart, the ACLU to its eternal credit was principled enough to take on my "rightist" professor’s case. In addition, a prominent local attorney volunteered his services, and within a few days the Mises Institute’s public relations machinery began its work on my behalf.
First, the ACLU sent a "letter of demand," requesting an immediate end to the charade or the university would be taken to court, then local news stories about the case appeared, and protest letters and angry calls began to pour in to the university.
As a first result, on February 9th the provost sent me a "non-disciplinary letter of instruction"--a far cry from a reprimand and monetary punishment. But if this letter had been sent to calm the waters, the opposite occurred. The "instructions" stood in patent contradiction to the bylaws on academic freedom, as even a dimwit could recognize. Whatever academic reputation the provost might have had before, the letter made him look like an invidious fool.
A local affair escalated into a national and even international one, and a wave of protests turned into a flood. The university had a public relations disaster on its hands. Only ten days later--almost exactly one year after the affair had started--the university president, at the order of the chancellor of the entire university system, officially withdrew all charges against me.
This was a moment of great personal triumph, yet some things remain undone: the university has not apologized to me, no form of restitution has been offered for a lost year of my work, and no one has been held accountable at UNLV. To accomplish this, a trial would be necessary. While my lawyers agree that I would prevail in court, another year or two of my life would be lost. This cost is too high. The outpouring of world-wide support on my behalf and the many uplifting and heartwarming letters are my satisfaction.
I have long regarded the political correctness movement as a threat to all independent thought, and I am deeply concerned about the level of self-censorship in academia. To counteract this tendency, I have left no political taboo untouched in my teaching. I believed that America was still free enough for this to be possible, and I assumed that my relative prominence offered me some extra protection.
When I became a victim of the thought police, I was genuinely surprised, and now I am afraid that my case has had a chilling effect on less established academics. Still, it is my hope that my fight and ultimate victory, even if they can not make a timid man brave, do encourage those with a fighting spirit to take up the cudgels.
If I made one mistake, it was that I was too cooperative and waited too long to go on the offensive.