After Purdue University went through the wringer in recent weeks over a pair of free speech blunders, faculty had a question for President Mitch Daniels.
First getting in an obligatory dig about how faculty members were not consulted on Purdue’s Commitment to Freedom of Expression, approved by the university trustees in May, David Sanders, vice chairman of the University Senate, on Monday asked Daniels: “Have members of the administration not read the document?”
There was no masking the pointed intent of the question. It was the first time faculty members had met in an open forum with Daniels since Purdue was called out for:
1. Wiping out a video of Pulitzer Prize winner Barton Gellman’s speech on campus — an embarrassing move that continues to draw national attention about academic freedom.
2. Initially telling student politicians they couldn’t talk “person-to-person” about their campaigns with voters outside a campus polling station last week.
Daniels has made a lot of noise about expanding free speech since ushering in “Chicago principles,” a policy modeled after standards written at the University of Chicago.
The question on Monday put him on the spot: Was he serious?
“If you want to know if we’re committed to free speech, how about these people who have been harassing, in a way, our students and making a lot of noise on campus,” Daniels said, referring to the constant shouts of “slut,” “whores” and “fornicators” during regular visits by Brother Jed Smock and the preachers of Campus Ministry USA.
“We’d rather that wasn’t going on, but the rules in the policy are set. That’s proof positive that we’re following it,” Daniels said. “But let’s just be clear: We’ve been pushing out substantially the boundaries of free speech on campus, where there were all sorts of restrictions on time and place and manner two or three years ago.”
One at a time, Daniels came to Purdue’s defense on cases he admitted could have — and should have — been handled better.
The first case: Gellman, a Washington Post reporter, was a keynote speaker during Purdue’s “Dawn or Doom 2,” a Sept. 23 to 25 conference devoted to questions about emerging technology in everyday life. Gellman spoke about his coverage of Edward Snowden, leaks of classified National Security Agency documents and national security journalism in an age of surveillance.
After the conference, “Dawn or Doom” presentations were posted on Purdue’s website. All but Gellman’s. When Gellman asked, he was told Purdue had erased it because it included slides that contained documents that, while widely published, were still considered classified by the federal government.
Purdue officials would later say they overreacted but were moved — after consulting with federal officials — by their interpretation of the university’s facility security clearance guidelines that allows for research using classified federal documents.
Gellman wrote a blog post last month about the misadventure. That brought a chorus of boos down on the West Lafayette campus. Most of the withering criticism followed Gellman’s own assessment about Purdue, speech and the reach of federal secrecy:
“I do not claim I suffered any great harm when Purdue purged my remarks from its conference proceedings,” Gellman wrote. “More importantly, to my mind, Purdue has compromised its own independence and that of its students and faculty. It set an unhappy precedent, even if the people responsible thought they were merely following routine procedures. Think of it as a classic case of mission creep.”
Daniels said Purdue could have handled things better, repeating the university’s line: Classified information could have been blocked out without sacrificing the entire presentation.
“But nobody’s free speech was being suppressed. What a funny way of looking at it,” Daniels said. “First of all, we invited him here, paid his expenses and a nice honorarium, and held a dinner in his honor afterward. The speech was open to the public, open to the press and streamed to the world. So I think we were facilitating his free speech in every way we knew how.”
This week, Steve Tally, who helped organize “Dawn or Doom,” said Purdue made attempts to recover the video of Gellman’s speech “but have stopped those efforts.” Gellman posted links to a version of his Purdue talk reconstructed by The Century Foundation, a think tank where Gellman is a senior fellow.
So are administrators across campus on board with the free speech policy? Daniels was asked again.
Daniels said he wished his administration had handled some things better, but he wasn’t about to say Purdue was going backward on free speech.
“I think (the free speech policy is) being observed rigorously, as we’ve intended it to be,” Daniels said. “If there are little things we could do to be more accommodating, I’m all for them.”
And that’s where he left it.
Dave Bangert is a writer for the (Lafayette) Journal and Courier. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.