On Veterans Day, Suffolk Law School gave us a lesson in the glories — and pitfalls — that come with living with a legal and moral tradition of free speech. Unfortunately, US Army Reserves Major Bob Roughsedge failed to learn it.
On November 11, Suffolk Law professor Michael Avery sent an e-mail to his fellow faculty members, protesting a university-sponsored care-packages-for-the-troops drive. Avery rejected "supporting the troops," arguing that "it is shameful that it is perceived as legitimate to solicit in an academic institution . . . support for men and women who have gone overseas to kill other human beings" and that sympathy for the troops "is not particularly rational in today's world" (i.e., a world without the draft or good reasons to fight). Avery ended his e-mail with a call for dialogue, asking Suffolk to "debate these questions [and] not remain on automatic pilot in support for the war agenda."
Now, one might agree or disagree with Avery's argument, but that's irrelevant. Practically speaking, Avery has tenure, and remains basically untouchable when it comes to speech. As long as he does not plagiarize, he can say what he wants, and we can choose to listen, or not.
Suffolk Dean Camille Nelson understands this basic premise of academic (and American) life. In response to Avery's comments, Nelson stated that, while she "personally intend[s] to donate a care package for our troops, [she respects] the right of others to hold a differing perspective." Nelson affirmed the right of Avery to his opinion, and then disagreed with him — supporting both academic discourse and the soldiers. But Nelson's response was not good enough for one adjunct professor.
On November 23, longtime Suffolk adjunct professor Robert J. Roughsedge, a major in the US Army Reserves, issued a well-publicized letter of resignation. He characterized Avery's words as "hate speech," and harshly criticized Suffolk for not strongly condemning them and bouncing the professor: "Taking action against Professor Avery would in no way threaten academic freedom at Suffolk any more than firing a professor who reveals membership in the Ku Klux Klan," Roughsedge remarkably exclaimed, stating that Avery "was basically like a five-year-old throwing a temper tantrum."
"We want rational adult discourse," Roughsedge went on, "and that is not something I would tolerate in my class and it is not something the school should tolerate from one of its professors."
So rather than demonstrate upon his return to Suffolk the "rational adult discourse" he supposedly espouses, Roughsedge resigned — the academic equivalent of a hissy fit.
The irony is that Roughsedge's response is akin to something we often see these days on the speech-intolerant left. Rather than responding to speech he finds objectionable, he attempts to characterize it as "hate speech," a comfortable alternative to engagement with competing views. The closest he gets to discussing the content of Avery's e-mail in his appearance on Fox News is his statement that "blaming the military and the soldiers for a war is like blaming a fireman for the fire."
These are exactly the sentiments that Avery was attacking, but Roughsedge ran away from actually having a discussion. Avery's critique is radical, but the way to answer critique is to argue against it, not take your ball and go home.