The Subtle Mechanics of Unfree Speech

By James F. Tracy

“We need not to be let alone. We need to be really bothered once in a while. How long is it since you were really bothered? About something important, about something real?”—Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

A cascade of managerial and public relations blunders has prompted Florida Atlantic University administrators to introduce The Agora Project, a broad initiative intending to promote “the practice of civility and civil discourse in an environment of free speech, academic freedom and open dialogue.”

Faculty valuing free speech and academic freedom whose persistent efforts at cultivating such through their teaching and research will likely be intrigued in hearing of the Agora Project, an endeavor proffering “forums on the importance of academic freedom, academic responsibility, and freedom of expression;” the program even promises to “create workshops on how best to practice civil and respectful interaction with others; and provide opportunities to discuss, dialogue and debate matters relevant to FAU and to our world.”

One is to conclude that, left to their own devices, faculty members and students may never arrive at a rational approach toward civility. Moreover, they may even become suspicious in the event that they are force-fed such an agenda. Indeed, after the Delphi-style exercise was presented at a recent faculty meeting, a colleague quietly pulled me aside and remarked, “This isn’t about civility. It’s about control.”

Will this individual soon be vociferously questioning Agora? Likely no. Wouldn’t want to “rock the boat” and draw attention to her/himself. Could s/he perhaps be on to something? Likely yes.

Not coincidentally, Agora was unveiled by university administrators in August 2013, a few short weeks after a speech code issued by FAU’s Division of Student Affairs was condemned by the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and subsequently revised. “Here at FAU,” the original speech code reads,

we encourage our campus community to exercise this cherished freedom in lively debate. In fact, we protect and promote that right. What we do insist on, however, is that everyone in the FAU community behave and speak to and about one another in ways that are not racist, religiously intolerant or otherwise degrading to others. (Emphasis added.)

FIRE countered that such a policy could impinge on constitutionally-protected speech and expression, possibly quashing not only academic discussion and inquiry, but also protest and debate on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict under the guise of “religious intolerance.”

In addition, an injunction on “racist” speech might be used to discipline vibrant exchanges on immigration and affirmative action. “And the prohibition on ‘otherwise degrading’ speech could apply to speech on virtually any topic that offends another person,” FIRE contends.

A cynic might conclude that The Agora Project is a backdoor effort to provide the basis for extending such criteria across each of the University’s constituencies—faculty, students, staff—with their implicit approval given the plan’s professed effort of consultation and engagement.

Along these lines, perhaps the endeavor is an effort to assuage certain communities who for some reason aren’t comfortable with or seek to discontinue open discussion, debate, and social protest—all of which are to be anticipated in a space devoted to the expansion of intellectual horizons.

Of course, those in the upper echelons of university oversight—the administrators and trustees—who are pushing for prospective speech protocols are exempt from such measures, as their actions and behavior are apparently beyond reproach.

For example, last spring then-president Mary Jane Saunders ran into a protesting student with her Lexus sedan, fled the scene down the wrong way of a one-way street, and was subsequently defended by FAU trustees while the police investigating the incident discounted Saunders’ clear commitment of one or more felonies.

In the wake of the “conspiracy theory professor” and “stomp on Jesus” controversies, and protests surrounding a deal that would name the university’s new football stadium after a transnational for-profit prison outfit, dental industry entrepreneur and Republican Party functionary Jeffrey Feingold remarked, “I don’t want [to] hear any more people say they think the lunatics have taken over the asylum.”

Feingold went on to criticize continued use of a headhunting firm that identified administrative candidates including Saunders because it allegedly produces “losers.” He went on to suggest a remarkably bizarre and insulting conspiracy theory that nonviolent campus protests by FAU students—the very children of Florida taxpayers who’ve elected to attend FAU–may culminate in violent terrorist attacks comparable to the Boston Marathon bombings! Unsurprisingly, no media attention or faculty outrage is afforded Feingold’s truly wacko theory.

One might ask, how is anyone given license for such behavior and remarks? Well, in January the ever-modest Feingold gave FAU $250,000 to name the university’s Board of Trustees room after him. “From those to whom much is given, much is expected,” he dictated.

With the above in mind, one’s imagination needn’t work overtime to identify the likely proponents of The Agora Project and its velvet-gloved implementation of “free speech and civility.” When FAU’s head honchos recently sat down to discuss selection of a new president, FAU Foundation Board Vice Chair and former Virginia “super lawyer” Jay Weinberg observed,

Because we are a diverse university … that doesn’t mean that we tolerate bigotry or prejudice. You have to draw a keen distinction between free speech and hate speech. I think that [in light of] recent events at this university, we need a president that understands that and who will act decisively with respect to it.

In other words, a principal holder of the institution’s purse strings asserts that the ideal chief administrator should reprimand and perhaps even fire faculty and staff who articulate extraordinary perspectives—ones that may fulfill the arbitrary and Kafkaesque notion of “hate speech.” In Agora-speak, this would inevitably involve violation of proposed “respectful” and “civic” discourse with-a-twist etiquettes.

In the subtly forced conversation on “civility,” “academic freedom,” and “respectful interaction,” a more clear-cut definition of what exactly constitutes meaningful exchange has been wholly lost, or, perhaps more fittingly, supplanted. In reality, couldn’t such a discussion be targeting the ideals that provide the basis for better understanding “something important, something real” that “really bothers” certain individuals … thus challenging them to consider an issue, an event, or a problem at a far deeper level?

When a university ceases to be a place where a wide expanse of “controversial” ideas and dialogues can be spontaneously ruminated on, one can safely conclude that it has made the transition from sanctuary and laboratory of free thought and ideas to a mere appendage of the consciousness industry and workhouse of the mind.


18 thoughts on “The Subtle Mechanics of Unfree Speech”

  1. Well, well, well.

    You may walk on water if you please.

    But you wear OUR lifejacket.

    You may drive a car.

    But you wear OUR seatbelt.

    You may have and do all the kinky sex you want.

    But you put on OUR condom.

    Great post.

    1. Yeah, James… project Agora reeks of control freakishness. The mission statement alone tells everything you need to know about it. Why don’t they just call it “Project Shut the hell up Prof. Tracy”

  2. Big money — such a useful attitude adjustment tool. This has been going on for a very long time throughout the entire educational system. When the love of money outweighs the love of truth, we the people get force-fed an agenda, no matter how ludicrous.

  3. Free speech ceases to be free when rules and boundaries are put into place under the guise of promotion and protection. It makes me think of the “Free speech zones” where people are given permission by authorities to stand inside of cages to protest and exercise their right to speak freely. Whether the confines are put into place with rules and regulations or with chain link and a padlocked gate, they both serve the same purpose which clearly has nothing at all to do with the promotion or protection of free speech and has everything to do with limiting it and effectively squashing it.

  4. Definition of agora – in ancient Greece, an open space in a town where people gathered, especially a marketplace or a subunit of Israel currency. It is all about the money and those who have it want to control the thoughts and speech of all their charges. Much like the government has decided for us what our healthcare should be and is in the process of dismantling the best system in the world. They managed to hide behind the lies of if you like it, you can keep it all the while planning to cancel excellent plans to destroy the industry and bring about their ultimate goal of single payer with rationing of care and yes death panels.

    1. “… what our healthcare system should be and is dismantling the best system in the world??? planning to cancel excellent plans to destroy the industry??? Are we living on the same planet? In the same universe? Single payer and death panels in the same sentence? The health insurance industry has had a free hand in creating Obamacare. That’s one of ACA’s major defects. Sorry, but what you’ve written here seems like mostly nonsense to me.

      1. Millions of responsible Americans who have been paying into the individual plans have had their excellent insurance coverage cancelled, including many cancer patients. The plans available to them now are substandard, they cannot keep their doctors or hospitals, and worst of all, they cannot afford them. The employer mandate will kick in next year if this monster is not stopped and hundreds of millions will be in the same boat. Checked out the price for my husband and myself last week – the annual cost was $15,000, with a $12,000 deductible and there is a 60% cap on what would be paid in the event of a major event, we have 100% now! Just went there again, the site has been modified and our costs are reduced to $10,000, however it did not ask for age, which had a huge impact last search and they neglect to mention that all important annual deductible. Most poor people will not bother to buy, even with a tax credit, you still need to pay the monthly bill. This is going to crush the middle class and the rich will have their private deals with doctors who for good reason, will leave public practice. Even the liberals are in sticker shock over this, makes one wonder where you get your news from.

      2. “The health insurance industry has had a free hand in creating Obamacare.”

        While I agree with everything Kathy says, this element of the story is a genuine mystery. Are the insurance executives really, really stupid? Couldn’t they see that the Obamacare they stitched together like Frankenstein’s monster was sure to destroy the health insurance industry?

        On one hand, it could be that they looked at the car insurance business, and envious that those cats somehow got the tyrannical state to force all drivers to buy their product, their mouths drooled a the prospect that the state could force every living person to buy THEIR product. If so, they are stupid. Most young people don’t need health insurance–that’s why they don’t buy it; if their employers give it to them, they may use it once in a while, but often it is only because of a perverse incentive–people often gladly consume “free” services they’d never dream of paying for.

        Take, for example, the ridiculous notion that selling an insurance policy to a known risk can in any way constitute “insurance.” Insurance is risk management. Companies that are forced to insure people who are already sick–and not charge impossibly high premiums because if that–are being asked to bankrupt themselves. The only way to recoup that certain loss is to both jack up the cost of insurance for the already insured who are not already sick, and also force the uninsured to buy insurance, for way more money than the existing policies they don’t want or can’t afford today cost. Did they think this could actually work? If so, they’d have to be incredibly stupid.

        On the other hand, it’s possible that they could read the writing on the wall, and knowing that their industry was not long for this world (i.e. they had inside information that the federal government was scheduled to destroy it), cooperated so as to prolong the inevitable and get as many bonuses as they can before the ship finally sinks. That is, it was purely mercenary. This is the far more likely explanation, because they can’t be as stupid as the other possibility would make them.

    2. What about the rationing of care under the present system? The uninsured don’t get care until their condition becomes an emergency. And, rather than hypothetical “death panels”, actual death clerks — insurance company employees paid to find a “pre-existing condition” or other excuse not to pay for expensive treatment that an “insured” needs.

      And referring to the medical, or any other, insurance business as an “industry” is a joke. Their only function is to make capitalism survivable, in case of unpredictable occurrences, for those with the money to pay them.

      The Heritage Foundation’s Romneycare — excuse me, ‘Obamacare’ — is healthcare for the insurance-racket parasites. It subsidizes them, gives them more bodies, and distracts attention from the need for genuinely socialized medicine.

  5. The operative function of the university and the Educational system, as opposed to its Proclaimed function in the American truth tradition, is to complement the corporate media, churches, think tanks, and other truth institutions of the American power system. The schools systematically miseducate the American people as children to enable the mass media to systematically misinform and miseducate us as adults.

    Scholars and scientists are permitted to tell specialized truths and specific information that is true, since we need them to perform our jobs for the powerful and to play our power roles. But simple holistic truth about American power and its influence on people is taboo in the universities, as is the conceptual language that can convey it. Those theorists in the past that tried to tell the simple truth about American institutions or American history were fired; Veblen was essentially fired from the U of Chicago, and Beard from Colombia for telling the simple economic truth about the American Constitution.

    There are notable and noble exceptions of course, but that is what they are: exceptions. GUNS, GERMS, AND STEEL, an anti-racist history by Jared Diamond could only be written by an academic who spent most of his life wondering around in the jungles of New Guinea. James Loewin wrote his classic LIES MY TEACHER TOLD ME, critiquing the deceit of American history highschool textbooks, but it changed nothing, as he himself says. Zinn wrote the people’s history of the USA and it did have an effect, but the American ideological world-view is still based on Orwellian fraud.

    But for God’s sake, don’t tell anybody! It is highly Uneducated to do so.
    So American truth professionals, largely recruited from the professional-managerial class, supervised by the plutocracy who own or manage the truth institutions they are embedded in, maintain a learned silence about American ideology. Mum is the professional word. Telling the specialized truth within the conventional ideological boundaries means never having to say that you’re sorry.

    So the American people are systematically deluded about the nature of political and social reality, and are afraid to tell the simple truth because it subverts the American ideological world-view of Freedom&Democracy.
    That is the basis of American denial, which is increased by the loss of power of the Western White Man.

    So the American people cannot unite effectively against the despotic American power being imposed on us, because we are afraid to tell the simple holistic truth. Until we transcend our fears, we will continue to be impoverished, oppressed, and enslaved by the plutocracy and their violence organs that rule us. And the scholars and scientists of the universities, again with noble exceptions, will implicitly and explicitly justify this enslavement, as they did in Nazi Germany.

  6. That’s how brainwashing works, James. Great Article! University becomes an institution for certain ideas, which is controlled by certain oligarchs. Sadly, free speech is a lie like democracy.

  7. Who runs our colleges and universities? The below link may be relevant to this discussion. Seems the growing problem has wide implications.
    In Israel, a university professor has the same questions. Who really makes the decisions regard higher education? To what end?

    1. Sadly, that sums up the current state of education where quantity is now more important than quality. As we are always discussing grim realities on this site, thought a bit of humor is in order. A Colorado college, in an effort to be more inclusive of all groups, has an optional question on their employee application. Male Female Queer As one commenter points out – there is a difference between gender and sexual orientation!

  8. This country was built on rebellion and we will always remain free if our freedom to dissent and criticize our government without fear of retaliation or sanction stays intact. Enough of being “politically correct.”

  9. I don’t know why it’s necessary to keep bashing the Scots for everything. Just because they make up 2% of the population and run the central banks and money interests, entertainment and news, academia (social studies) I really don’t what the issue is. Palestinians can compete just like they do. I’m sure we’ll have a Fed head from Gaza soon. And with that out of the way…

    We are losing the “war of words” because the Dark Side understands and uses them so effectively, holds the high ground early and decisively and forces us to sound like extremists because the conditions have already been cemented in place by the time we get around to pointing these things out. Dr. Tracy is an all-too-rare example of someone who actually walk the talk about a free exchange of ideas.b

    The only avenue we have open is to be willing to stand up with these projects are first discussed and ask WHO will be judging what is an isn’t acceptable and WHO made them the arbiter. Often, it is self-selection with a very healthy dollop of self interest. More BS, more deception, more oppression, more of what is destroying us brick by brick.

    As a poster on another blog says often, time to roll out the guillotines.

    1. Thank you! After wading through a series of meaningless comments, finally someone was courageous enough to type the word “Scot.”

      Setting aside the debate of what is really courageous, only those who aren’t truly awake can clearly see that, in every instance, hate speech laws (read ‘anti-free speech laws) are pushed by members of the same tribe.

      The next FAU president will be from this same tribe.

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