Chancellor John W. Ryan
State University of New York
State University Plaza
Albany, NY 12246
Dear Chancellor Ryan:
Your recent statement to the Board of Trustees about the SUNY New Paltz conference entitled "Revolting Behavior: The Challenges of Women's Sexual Freedom" may have been intended to put the dispute about the conference behind you, but served instead to exacerbate the problem. Your statement that President Bowen exercised poor judgment in permitting a conference that was "needlessly offensive to many people, including people of faith" situates the debate squarely as one about content and viewpoint and raises serious First Amendment concerns, notwithstanding your disclaimer to the contrary.
Many conference participants are serious scholars and teachers of note, and the mission of the conference was plainly a legitimate one for students interested in the social construction of gender, sexuality, and other accepted academic topics. As stated in the call for papers, the conference was to explore issues such as state control of women's sexuality, the effects of race, class and ethnicity on public policy towards women's sexuality, sexual harassment, sexual attitudes across generational lines, and so forth. All of these are legitimate subjects for academic discussion, and were reportedly treated in a serious and scholarly fashion by most or all of the participants, a fact that cannot be obscured by objections to a single event or participant.
According to press reports, one of the chief critics of the conference is chairman of the National Catholic Forum. Without questioning his right to his own viewpoint about the issues raised at the conference, it is equally clear that he has no right to suppress or penalize the expression of contrary views, especially at a state-supported institution. The fact that some may have been offended by the conference is irrelevant to the right of the students and faculty to explore these issues. First Amendment protections are rarely needed to protect discussion of the mundane, but are essential to safeguard the ability to discuss the controversial. Moreover, the Constitution protects crude and tasteless expression, along with the bland and unobjectionable.
If there were any question about the scope of First Amendment protections in public colleges and universities, including the obligation to implement content and viewpoint-neutral funding policies, they should have been resolved by the Supreme Court's opinion in Rosenberger v. University of Virginia, 115 S. Ct. 2510 (1995): "[T]he government offends the First Amendment when it imposes financial burdens on certain speakers based on the content of their expression….The government must refrain from regulating speech when the specific motivating ideology or the opinion or perspective of the speaker is the rationale for the restriction." In this case, there is simply no way to hide the antipathy to the subject matter of the conference and the viewpoints and modes of expression behind an alleged concern for academic standards. On how many other occasions have the trustees second-guessed faculty and administration about the academic validity of a conference? Your own committee provided no support for a challenge based on academic considerations, and that should have put the matter to rest.
Public discussion about the conference is a worthwhile and in itself constitutionally protected activity, and we applaud and encourage it, even if it is critical. However, the First Amendment forbids state officials from trying to suppress ideas or penalize their expression because they are offensive or repugnant to some. The ideologically-motivated attack on the conference, and on Dr. Bowen, simply cannot be reconciled with the university's constitutional obligation to facilitate the free flow of ideas, including controversial ones. Instead of searching for ways to vilify and undermine Dr. Bowen, the trustees could perform a valuable function, consistent with their role within the educational system, by encouraging a discussion among students and faculty about why this conference was so controversial, what can be learned from the debate about it, and the role of the First Amendment in our political and educational system.
Joan E. Bertin
National Coalition Against Censorship
cc: SUNY Board of Trustees (as follows)
Edward F. Cox
Donovan Leisure Newton & Irvine
30 Rockefeller Plaza, New York NY 10112
Thomas F. Egan
41 Biltmore Avenue, Rye NY 10580
Arnold B. Gardner
Kavinoky & Cook
120 Delaware Avenue, Buffalo NY 14202
Louis T. Howard
197 South Bayview Avenue, Amityville NY 11701
Pamela R. Jacobs
24 Middlesex Road, Buffalo NY 14216
State University Plaza #N525, Albany NY 12246
Erland E. Kailbourne
1 Peter D. Kiernan Plaza, Albany NY 12207
US Immigration Court
970 Broad Street #1135, Newark NJ 07102
Miles L. Lasser
261 Towner Avenue, Jamestown NY 14701
Edward S. Nelson
42 South Broad Street, Norwich NY 13815
John J. O'Connor
State University of NY
State University Plaza, Albany NY 12246
Paul R. Perez
46 Durham Road, Bronxville NY 10708
Candace de Russy
50 Hampshire Road, Bronxville NY 10708
N. Theodore Sommer
Hinman Howard & Kattell
80 Exchange Street, Binghamton NY 13901-3490
Dr. Harvey F. Wachsman
Pegalis & Wachsman
175 East Shore Road, Great Neck NY 11023
For letters of support, write to: Dr. Roger Bowen, President, State University of New York at New Paltz, 75 South Manheim Blvd., Suite 9, New Paltz NY 12561-2443.