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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019) and AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021).

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Self-explanatory open letter to Dr Daniel Fogel

TO: Dr Daniel Fogel
President, University of Vermont

Dear Dr Fogel


I was astonished when I heard that the University of Vermont has invited Ben Stein, an up-front enemy of reputable science, to deliver its commencement address. I do hope that you, or whoever else might have made or endorsed this decision, took into account that Mr Stein has publicy blamed the Darwinian account of evolution for the Nazi Holocaust in his efforts to undermine well-corroborated biological science. He has been the front man for a meretricious campaign attempting to demonstrate that proponents of Intelligent Design are somehow being victimised in the academy. These claims have repeatedly been shown to be without substance. See for example the excellent "Expelled Exposed" website:


I hope you imagine the embarrassment of your science faculty at the prospect of your giving such a person a prominent soapbox for his views.

The invitation to Mr Stein has tended to bring the University of Vermont into disrepute. Unfortunately, the university is now in a no-win situation: if you revoke the invitation, Mr Stein will claim that he has been "expelled" from the academy and his freedom of speech suppressed. Of course, he has ample opportunity to put his views in many forums; you are under no obligation to provide him with another, highly prestigious, one. Although there is now an obvious downside, I urge that you seriously reconsider the invitation. The danger to your university's reputation if you go ahead outweighs even the propaganda value for Mr Stein and his allies if withdraw the invitation and find another commencement speaker.

Yours sincerely

Russell Blackford


Go Democrats said...

John Stuart Mill would rotate in his grave, not at the university's invitation to Stein, but at your reaction to it. Of course they are not required to give him a platform, but what better way to engage the weaknesses of intelligent design for a public audience than to have them ably espoused?

Go back and read the first two chapters of On Liberty.
I won't even touch here the irony of your espousing freedom of religion and speech in Australia, but not I'm this case. Is the cause of standard biology to weak to bear a little argument about it?

Russell Blackford said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Russell Blackford said...

You don't understand Mill. You don't understand freedom of speech. You don't understand freedom of religion. You also don't understand academic freedom. I doubt that you understand the concept of irony.

I, on the other hand, sent a letter in which I left out a word near the end. For shame! But I decided to publish it here, warts and all.

Go Democrats said...

Well, assuming that your comment was to me, if I don't understand Mill, or freedom of speech, I am no closer to understanding them now than I was before reading your response. My desire is not to hurt your feelings, and if my flippant tone has done so I sincerely apologize, but if you can tell me how your position is philosophically consistent or liberal, I would love to know, since it does not seem so to me. I'm not even a proponent of intelligent design, but I can't see how Stein's speech rises to a level of clear and present danger or any other accepted censorship test.

Thanks. And don't be angry.

Russell Blackford said...

Okay, the thing is simply that I am not the state. Nor, at least in this context, is Dr Fogel (his university may be a public one, but it enters into many private contracts ... and this issue was purely about a private contract).

Nor are we the organised power of society censoring people through some means other than the coercive power of the state's agencies (I doubt that there is any such means available in pluralistic Western societies, but perhaps we could think of situations where certain things become unsayable, though not illegal).

All in all, no one has done anything to Stein that Mill should have disapproved of. Stein has every right to worship as he wishes and to express his views without them being suppressed by the organised power of society. Indeed, he will continue to do so, and will doubtless be well paid for many of the expressions of his views. He was going to paid US$7,500 for his address on this occasion (this was supposedly a discount rate). Far from having his views suppressed, he is well placed to disseminate them widely and to make a living from it.

But being invited to give a university commencement address is not a right - it is a great privilege. Dr Fogler had every right to extend that privilege to him, but I and others had every right to ask him to reconsider and to give him reasons as to why Stein was not an appropriate person to give this particular address. In offering those reasons, we didn't exercise coercion - Dr Fogler could have ignored us if he'd wished. Indeed, he left the decision to Stein himself. To Stein's credit, he ended up pulling out.

Now, if someone really did try to suppress Stein's freedom of speech - speech that he has a right to, not a particular opportunity that is a privilege - I'd be the first to defend him. You may recall that when Yoko Ono tried to sue Stein's people to prevent them from using a sample of John Lennon's "Imagine" to make a point, I was one of the first people on the internet to say that she was wrong and that such a use of Lennon's song was fair. I did think that Ono was trying to use the law to suppress fair use of the song, even though I disagreed with the point that Stein and his people were trying to make. I.e., I disagreed with what he had to say but defended his right to say it (and even to say it in a particular manner).

Subsequently, arguments similar to mine prevailed in the court case.

Hope all that is clearer.

Go Democrats said...

Yes, thanks very much.