Washington State University Professor Calls Student "White Shitbag" at Demonstration:

The WSU investigation report is here. The College Republicans organized an anti-illegal-immigration event, featuring a "24-foot, chain-link, cyclone fence, later established as a representation of a 'Wall of Immigration.'" Professor John Streamas showed up, got into an argument with Dan Ryder, a College Republicans member, and in the process called him a "white shitbag."

Ryder eventually filed a complaint alleging that Streamas subjected him to discriminatory harassment and intimidation, in violation of a university policy. The WSU report held that Prof. Streamas's insult didn't violate the policy, but noneteless condemned Prof. Streamas for "immature, intellectual unsophistiated and thoughtless conduct unbecoming any WSU employee and a member of the WSU faculty, in particular." The university will apparently officially reprimand Prof. Streamas.

It seems to me that Prof. Streamas's statement indeed shouldn't be a fireable offense. Despite the First Amendment and academic freedom protections that professors have, I think a university could indeed sanction in various ways one-to-one personal insults said by professors to students, especially when they fall within the constitutional category of "fighting words" (words that are likely to start a fight), which "shitbag" likely does. But to do that, I think the university ought to have a policy that's far clearer than the one at issue here; and there should any event be some accommodation for occasional statements made in anger — especially when the speaker promptly apologizes when called on this, as Streamas did here, when berated by Mr. Ryder for the insult. When people get impassioned, they sometimes say things that they shouldn't say, and while we expect better from professors, making each such statement (even an insulting one) into a firing offense (or, when said by students, into a dismissable offense) would go too far to deter extemporaneous debates in which people realize they may go over the line.

I agree that we also have to be attentive to students' academic freedom, and certain speech by professors — most obviously, threats of academic retaliation — can undermine students' freedom. But here the statement was outside class; Prof. Streamas wasn't one of Ryder's professors; and while Mr. Ryder was rightly offended by the statement, I don't think he could have reasonably interpreted it as a threat of either retaliation or of violence (except insofar as all heated condemnation, including condemnation that's much more substantive than this, may carry some vague and indirect implicit threat of retaliation).

Nonetheless, it is pretty sad that this incident happened, and it says some pretty bad things about Prof. Streamas and others like him. First, the report tells us that Prof. Streamas "insists that he did not utter the phrase as an expression of racism, in part, because he argues that a person of color cannot be racist, by definition, because racism also defines a power differential that is not usually present when a person or color is speaking." Yeah, right. He and others are redefining the term "racism" in a way that's pretty far removed from its normal meaning — which is racial hostility — so as to give themselves a rhetorical break from the rules they're imposing on others. And on top of that, he's applying even his revised definition in a disingenuous way: Whatever may be "usually" so, there surely is a "power differential" between a professor of whatever race and a student of whatever race.

Second, "In reply to a [university Center for Human Rights] request for a meeting, [Prof. Streamas] left an unsolicited voicemail message, which stated, in relevant part,"

The fence was a racist attack upon us. And ... I think that we need to talk about that .... Whatever I said to one person is not equal to whatever that fence did to hundreds of people, attacking us personally and communally.... Many, many people have been hurt. I don't care about the hurt feelings of one white person; I care about the hurt feelings of many, many people of color and immigrants who were offended by that fence....

Well, yes, the two are not equal. The fence and the demonstration related to it is an attempt to participate in a debate about illegal immigration. Some might think that the attempts to stem illegal immigration are inherently racist; others might not; but what's important for a university is that illegal immigration and the responses to it are a substantive issue that requires substantive discussion.

That people are "offended" by the discussion, or by the symbols of the discussion, is no reason not to have the discussion. (I suppose one could argue that the fence is a nonsubstantive symbol that doesn't add much to the discussion, but I take it that any "people of color and immigrants who were offended" would have been equally offended by substantive denunciations of illegal immigration as much as they would be by a fence.) And this is especially so with a university: A university can't function effectively if people are deterred from raising substantive arguments because some people (even "many people of color and immigrants") are offended.

On the other hand, calling a student a "white shitbag" is not an attempt to participate in a debate, or to foster a debate. It's namecalling that's pretty clearly intended to insult, and likely to have no effect but insulting. That sort of offensiveness — deliberate nonsubstantive insult, rather than an expression of ideas (good or bad) — undermines rather than advancing the mission of the university, especially when it's a professor who's doing the talking.

Finally, how can a university fulfill its mission if its faculty deny that there is even a substantive debate to be had, on an issue that seems much in need of a substantive debate? Prof. Streamas's view is that "The fence is no different than a Confederate flag or a swastika." Than a swastika? Taking the view that immigration laws ought to be enforced, and that some limits on immigration are proper, is tantamount to endorsing the killing of Jews and an explicit ideology of racial superiority?

There's an important debate to be had about the proper immigration policy for our nation (a nation to which I suspect hundreds of millions would want to come, if the borders were completely opened). People of all races have different views on the subject. I unfortunately couldn't find any recent polls on immigration broken down by race, but a 1996 poll (the most recent one I could find) reported that roughly identical numbers — 86% to 90% — of black, Asian, and white respondents took the view that Clinton should in his second term "crack down on illegal immigration." (Warning: Asian numbers have a very high margin of error, and black numbers have a relatively high one.) In 1994, the Voter News Service poll reported that California's anti-illegal-immigrant Prop. 187 was supported by 64% of white voters, 57% of Asians, 56% of blacks, and 31% of Hispanics. (Same warning as above, though somewhat less so.) The L.A. Times reported less support by nonwhites, but still substantial support — 63% among whites, 47% among Asians and blacks, and 23% among Hispanics.

This is an issue that people, especially scholars who are interested in such questions, should address seriously and thoughtfully. Yet my sense is that there's an atmosphere in many university departments, especially ones that are ideologically monolithic and thus tend towards being echo chambers, that professors react to these questions with vitriol rather than with thoughtfulness. That surely seems to be so of Prof. Streamas.