Academic freedom is a beautiful thing, essential to our nation’s celebrated system of higher education. And, to borrow the words of Dick Cheney on gay marriage, “freedom means freedom for everyone” — including people whose ideas we might not like, or even find repugnant.
How far should academic freedom extend? That’s an issue being faced right now at NYU Law School. The following message went out to the law student community last week:
We are writing on behalf of OUTLaw, NYU Law’s LGBT student group, to raise awareness of anti-gay statements made by a NYU visiting professor. Dr. Li-ann Thio, a professor at the National University of Singapore, will be teaching Human Rights Law in Asia during the Fall 2009 semester as a Global Visiting Professor of Law at NYU.
In 2007, the Singaporean Parliament was considering repealing 377A – the statute criminalizing consensual sex between men in Singapore. Dr. Thio, a Nominated Member of Parliament, gave a speech before Parliament arguing against the repeal. In her speech supporting the continued criminalization of “acts of gross indecency” between two males, she made such statements as, “You cannot make a human wrong a human right,” “Diversity is not a license for perversity,” and that anal sex is like “shoving a straw up your nose to drink” (http://theonlinecitizen.com/2007/10/377a-serves-public-morality-nmp-thio-li-ann). The efforts to repeal 377A failed, and consensual sex between men is still illegal in Singapore.
While respecting Dr. Thio’s right to her opinion and without questioning her teaching abilities, OUTLaw believes it is important for LGBT students and allies to be aware of her views in order to make fully informed decisions regarding class registration. If you have any questions or concerns, please do not hesitate to contact the OUTLaw Board at email@example.com.
The NYU OUTLaw Board
Links to videos of her speech to the Parliament: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QWqp3mLz4ko (part 1), http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sUDYo29gNNg (part 2), http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wPIdp0qXZy4 (part 3)”
The videos are worth checking out (especially if you’re a high school debater wanting to relive your glory days). Dr. Thio speaks persuasively and with conviction, supporting her argument against gay sex with an impressively broad range of sources, from the Bible to Immanuel Kant to contemporary bloggers. One would expect nothing less from someone with her dazzling educational pedigree: a BA from Oxford, an LLM from Harvard Law School, and a PhD from Cambridge. Don’t call her Dr. TTThio!
Additional discussion, plus a reader poll, after the jump.
The NYU administration did not respond to our multiple requests for comment, but the powers-that-be are aware of the Dr. Thio controversy. Ethan Park, one of the two co-chairs of NYU OUTLaw, informed ATL:
Members of the OUTLaw Board met with a vice dean prior to distributing the letter to the student body. While the administration remained firm that they would not be altering their relationship with Dr. Thio in any way, we felt the meeting was productive and collegial.
The Board decided to focus on vocalizing our dismay and opening up dialogue with the administration, although individual members and alumni have asked the administration to rescind Dr. Thio’s invitation. Further, we are planning on having a panel discussion this fall addressing the limits of academic freedom and the effect that racist, sexist, or homophobic comments should or shouldn’t have on academic appointments.
Using Dr. Thio’s visit as an opportunity for discussing academic freedom, rather than trying to get her invitation rescinded, strikes us as wise. Students often learn the most from professors with whom they disagree. An echo chamber isn’t very educational; ideas should be tested through intellectual combat. And Dr. Thio seems like a worthy adversary.
What do you think about NYU’s decision to invite Dr. Thio to teach human rights law? Take our poll: