I have spent my career fighting for genuine dialogue across our disagreements rather than the sloganeering, cant and demonization that have come to characterize our politics. My own choice of the academic life was spurred in no small part by my search for an arena in which what matters is not which side you are on but the quality of your ideas.
So you will perhaps excuse me if I have no sympathy for the efforts of gay-rights activists to smear and intimidate Douglas Laycock of the University of Virginia, perhaps our most prominent scholar of law and religion, for the sin of speaking his mind. A law student and a recent graduate, spurred on by the advocacy group GetEqual, have filed freedom-of-information requests for his telephone and travel records, in what they describe as an effort at dialogue about what they consider the harmful effects of his views.
This description is implausible. If they wanted to talk to him, they could knock on his door. The effort is aimed at intimidation. They want him to shut up.
University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds (aka “Instapundit”) adds: “They’re not really trying to intimidate him. They’re really trying to intimidate anyone else who might want to pursue similar scholarly lines of inquiry.” Professor Laycock is among the most important law-and-religion scholars writing today. His place and reputation are secure. Not so the junior academic wishing to establish his or her bona fides. Tactics that won’t intimidate Professor Laycock could well intimidate the next Laycock-to-be — and that’s a problem.
Even when a professor holds opinions off at the far margin, to target him or her for intimidation is an affront to the freedom that makes the academy worth cherishing. I was an undergraduate at Stanford when Nobel laureate William Shockley was peddling his theories on why genetic inheritance meant that the difference in IQ between whites and blacks could never be eradicated. Certainly there were students who wanted to boycott him. Instead he was invited to a debate with a leading geneticist. The auditorium was packed. Shockley had few fans in the crowd, but we listened respectfully, because we were there for the exchange of ideas.
That’s what the campus is supposed to be: the place where we challenge one another to stretch our minds, not close them.