Sunday, December 27, 2015

Adventures in Conservative Safe Spaces: An Infinitely Ongoing Series

The Albuquerque Journal reports that a free speech lawsuit filed against the University of New Mexico has been dismissed. The plaintiff, a UNM student, claimed she was kicked out of class for expressing opposition to lesbianism.

Before we proceed, this case is an excellent reminder to consult your lawyer friends before having opinions on any legal developments. The article reports that the presiding Judge, the Honorable M. Christina Armijo, had initially refused to dismiss the case, but changed her mind as additional evidence demonstrated that the professor in question "offered [the student] numerous opportunities to rewrite her essay to adhere to academic standards or to take alternative academic routes to achieve her class grade."

Litigation proceeds in steps, and in the early stages judges are obliged to generally accept a plaintiff's allegations as true. Hence, when a judge "refuses to dismiss a case", all she's saying is that -- without looking at anything but what the plaintiff is asserting in her complaint -- there is judiciable case in front of her. Later, once both sides have adduced evidence through discovery, either party can move for "summary judgment", where the judge decides whether -- taking all disputed facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party -- a reasonable factfinder could rule in their favor. Again, in both of these steps the judge is obligated to simply assume (within reason) that the disputed facts are as one side or the other says they are. So denying either of these motions does not and should not imply that the facts are actually as they are stated.

While I haven't found the opinion itself, that seems to be what happened here. Initially, the court had to consider the case simply as it was presented by the student. And you can imagine how that looks: a demure, God-fearing Christian, tentatively questioning whether lesbianism was an ideal family structure. The evil hippie professor immediately screaming at her to "Get out you bigoted wench!", before snapping a cross over her knee and using her bra to light a Bible on fire as  all the PC children in class laughed and laughed.

But as litigation progresses, the other side gets to present its case too.  And once the judge saw the undisputed content of the professor's contact with the student, things take on a different light. It seems that the professor's comments on the student paper contained nothing more than the normal critical feedback challenging both word choice (use "childless" rather than "barren") and critical support (urging her to back up statements that lesbianism is "perverse"). And when the student complained that viewing movies with lesbian themes was "unendurable", the professor simply told her that there would be more such films as the course progressed.

What it seems we have here is a classic case of conservatives wanting "safe spaces" in college. The student was uncomfortable with lesbian themes in a film class ("unendurable"). She didn't want her views on lesbianism (that it was "perverse") to be challenged, she was outraged that she needed to defend them critically. Of course, lots of people share this vice. But it is not clear (or perhaps all too clear) how demanding a "safe space" when you're a conservative becomes a free speech issue (whereas when liberals do it, it is of course the greatest threat to academic freedom and open expression the world has ever seen).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

We expect a weak commitment to free speech from the right-wing but from the left it seems not only hypocritical but disastrous in terms of undercutting the left's most powerful historical forces. When the right-wing cackles about coddled college students they're merely remarking on the hypocrisy (and leaving unspoken their own significant free speech violations). When people on the left (which is how this issue mostly comes up in the media, cf Chait types) do it it's bc they're afraid that the left is going down a right-wing totalitarian road.