Gay Rights Shouldn't Threaten Academic Freedom

Expanding the LGBTQ Conversation
May 29 2014 11:13 AM

Gay Rights Shouldn't Threaten Academic Freedom

laycock_doug
Douglas Laycock

Credit: Tom Cogill / Univeristy of Virginia School of Law

The ideas and advocacy of Princeton professor Robert P. George are, to my mind, inane, illogical, and sometimes downright cruel. I have often derided his work and scorned his close collaborators. I sense in George’s work a grave disregard, even disrespect, for the lives and dignity of gay people. But George has absolutely every right to espouse his views free of bullying and harassment. And the notion that gay rights activists might persecute or intimidate George solely for his academic work is completely repellant to me.

I mention George because the hoary tactic of smearing a professor whose work you dislike—a tactic perfected by the quintessential political bully, Ken Cuccinelli—appears, suddenly, to be a viable option for the pro-gay left. As my colleague Dahlia Lithwick notes, University of Virginia student Greg Lewis and alum Stephanie Montenegro have launched a campaign against University of Virginia law school professor Douglas Laycock, carefully orchestrated by the prominent LGBTQ group GetEQUAL. Why? Because they don’t like his work. Specifically, Lewis and Montenegro are upset that Laycock questioned the conventional wisdom among progressives on Arizona’s “religious liberty” bill and filed an amicus brief in favor of Hobby Lobby. According to the young activists, these views suggest that Laycock lacks an “understanding of the real-world consequences” of his scholarship.

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That may be true. If so, the correct reaction would be to show Laycock why he’s wrong. But that’s not what Lewis and Montenegro did. Instead of providing a persuasive counterpoint to Laycock’s views, the activists—led by GetEQUAL—tried to intimidate him into halting the conversation, submitting Freedom of Information Act requests for two-and-a-half years’ worth of cellphone records and university-funded travel expenses. There’s no real reason for these requests but to hound Laycock and cast a shadow over his reputation. It’s a baseless smear performed solely because some students disagree with his constitutional beliefs. Laycock is a formidable figure in his field; I’m sure he can survive the tumult. But Lewis and Montenegro are sending a very clear message to his colleagues and the rest of the academia: Dare to disagree with us, and we will malign and harass you.

I understand why the temptation to sully Laycock’s reputation is so strong. Most gay people have been degraded by society and demeaned by the law in too many ways to count. To hear yet another straight white male defend a bill that was clearly designed to debase gay people even further is, I admit, exasperating. I felt a similar exasperation after several of my colleagues defended Brendan Eich. When someone hasn’t experienced anti-gay discrimination, their testimony on the topic can seem presumptuous and dangerously naive. This description, I believe, fits Laycock’s interpretation of Arizona’s anti-gay bill.

But the correct response to this problem is not to shut down the conversation by bullying the participants and sending a message to professors across the country that their dissent is unwelcome. The correct response is to counter Laycock’s misbegotten ideas with better ones, to convince the country that our logic should win out. The trump card of the gay rights movement has always been our moral high ground, our unwillingness to engage in the kind of base, demeaning, ad hominem attacks regularly practiced by the National Organization for Marriage and their ilk. When we abandon that morality, we don’t merely lose our high ground; we lose, period.

It is, of course, quite possible that Lewis and Montenegro are little more than overeager activists whose righteous passion has gotten the best of them. I know how that goes. But it’s clear that GetEQUAL has been calling the shots from the get-go, and they should be ashamed for traducing a professor’s integrity because its members disagree with his scholarship. We have come this far because we have better ideas and better ethics than our opponents. Now is not the time to trade in our principles for cheap, pointless obloquy. 

Mark Joseph Stern is a writer for Slate. He covers science, the law, and LGBTQ issues.

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