Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Is this e-mail "hate speech"?

Some of you are probably following the case of Kenneth Howell, an adjunct religious instructor at the University of Illinois, who's been dismissed after he e-mailed his students an articulation (and defense) of Catholic natural law views of sexual morality.  A student complained that the e-mail amounted to hate speech (not a credible claim, in my opinion).

His case raises questions we've wrestled with in the past at ISW, including academic freedom and whether to advocate for one's own views in the classroom. I'm curious to know other people's take on the situation: Unsurprisingly, Howell is claiming that his academic freedom was violated. But as some commenters at Philosophy Smoker have noted, Howell's ability to represent objectively and accurately positions that are not his own is seriously questionable. In the e-mail, Howell unsympathetically characterizes utilitarianism, relies on a good many speculative assertions, and seems not to get the point of thinking about homosexuality in terms of moral sentimentalism. Add to that the e-mail's imperious and didactic tone, and I can well imagine that students find it difficult to interact with Howell. Whether his academic freedom was violated, I'd be reluctant to have Howell teaching ethics at my institution.


  1. There are three issues that need to be addressed.
    1) Is this email hate speech? it may be naive, but I do no think it constitutes hate. But, this presuppose we have a consensus on what constitutes hate speech. I not so sure we do. And, if it is hate speech, why should this not be discussed in academia. I fear that labeling speech 'this or that' limits our willingness and ability to discuss controversial issues so that some understanding might arise.
    2) Is he qualified to teach ethics - I do not know. But this is an issue for departmental review, not speculation based on one email. Certainly, the discussion in this email is flawed, but how does it compare to his presentation of theories/issues in the classroom? What do his other students think? How long has he been at this institution? or taught this subject? I think we 'rush to judgment' if we simply rely on one email or student's reaction. Not all my students have thought I am a good teacher. I had one student evaluation that read "He's lost his mind, Fire Him!" Another read, "he taught me ethics and is the most unethical person I ever met."
    3) To bring up an issue I have brought up before and probably will again, but how much is this an issue at this institution because he is an adjunct professor with little or not protection, and not a tenure track or tenured professor?

  2. John, you're certainly right that there's a lot more evidence we'd need to consider in order to evaluate Howell's competence. But I'm with you that this is NOT hate speech. In fact, I think the student is exhibiting that wrongheaded sense of respect or disrespect I discussed in my June 2 post.

  3. I believe this case is symptomatic of the prevailing bigotry demonstrated by the atheistic naturalists/existentialists toward theists in philosophy departments throughout the country. Anyone teaching theological ideas (and even worse, publishing these ideas under the university’s name) are considered embarrassments to the department, and they are often railroaded out of the university on ridiculous allegations for the “betterment of the department.” My own mentor (the best instructor of Socratic, Theosophical and New Age Philosophies in the country) was lynched in a similar manor by the University of North Texas philosophy department several years ago. This brilliant mind is now relegated to teaching intro to philosophy classes at a junior college in Florida. What a waste! And, what a loss for the students at UNT.


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