• Petitioned President Joel Seligman
  • Responded

This petition was delivered to:

University of Rochester
President Joel Seligman
See response

Joel Seligman, President of the University of Rochester: Censure Professor Steven Landsburg

    1. Daniel Nelson
    2. Petition by

      Daniel Nelson

      Rochester, NY

We the undersigned petition President Joel Seligman to:

Censure Professor Steven Landsburg

Professor Steven Landsburg has once again besmirched the reputation of the University of Rochester. In a recent blog post ( http://www.thebigquestions.com/2013/03/20/censorship-environmentalism-and-steubenville/ ) the University of Rochester Professor of Economics questions whether the rape and sexual exploitation of unconscious individuals should be a punishable offense. He hypothesizes that the “psychic harm” inflicted on such individuals may, legally speaking, be negligible. (What’s the difference, he asks, between this kind of violation and the phenomenon whereby “trillions of photons penetrate my body” whenever “someone on my street turns on a porch light”?) Admittedly, Landsburg’s statements are for the most part couched in hypothetical language; but rhetorical questions such as the following leave no doubt as to what Landsburg is suggesting—that raping unconscious individuals might be perfectly okay: “As long as I’m safely unconscious and therefore shielded from the costs of an assault, why shouldn’t the rest of the world (or more specifically my attackers) be allowed to reap the benefits?”

Professor Landsburg’s thinly veiled justification of rape is not just a perverse and repulsive feat of sophistry. At a time when colleges and universities across the country need to escalate their efforts to prevent the rape and sexual abuse of students, Landsburg has chosen to subvert such efforts—not by directly opposing them, but by casuistically undermining their logic. His post constitutes an insensitive, irresponsible, and potentially dangerous rhetorical act. We urge President Joel Seligman to express the University’s outraged disapproval of this act by officially censuring Landsburg. Although we leave the precise form of censure to the University administration’s discretion, we ask that the censure not be limited to a mere statement of disapproval. We propose that President Seligman officially warn Landsburg that any further infringements of the standards of responsible discourse will result in disciplinary measures being taken against him.

If President Seligman fails to issue such a censure, we fear that the University over which he presides will (figuratively speaking) have committed a grievous sin of omission. By its inaction it will have implicitly condoned, and even aligned itself with, a kind of discourse which no respectable institution of learning would wish to condone or align itself with.

We urge President Seligman to take this course of action, then, not just out of our personal outrage at Landsburg’s article, but also out of our concern for the reputation of the University of Rochester. The sophistry employed in Landsburg’s article is little different from that which is employed by fanatical political pundits—individuals whose views are typically relegated to cable news networks and talk radio programs. We ask whether the University of Rochester wishes to employ professors who publicly engage in this irresponsible, deliberately offensive brand of sophistry. To put it bluntly, were Rush Limbaugh to obtain a PhD in political science, would the University consider hiring him? Or would it decline to do so, in the interests of preserving its reputation as a renowned institution of learning and respectful discourse, rather than a hotbed of misleading, incendiary rhetoric?

This is not the first instance in which Professor Landsburg has tarnished the University of Rochester’s reputation. Last year he drew national media attention when, publicly defending Rush Limbaugh’s verbal attack on Sandra Fluke (the women’s rights activist who had called for the coverage of contraception under health insurance), he declared that Limbaugh had not gone far enough. Fluke is not a prostitute, Landsburg insisted; she is something worse: an “extortionist” ( http://www.thebigquestions.com/2012/03/02/rush-to-judgment/ ).

Judging from his recent speculations on the legality of rape, it would appear that Professor Landsburg’s “thought experiments” are becoming more and more aggressively offensive. We the undersigned believe it is time for President Seligman to draw a line in the proverbial sand. Last year he cited the University’s “deep commitment to academic freedom” when, despite his laudable expression of outrage at Landsburg’s attack on Sandra Fluke, he declined to take disciplinary action against the professor ( http://www.rochester.edu/president/memos/2012/landsburg.html ). Would President Seligman cite the same principle if Landsburg asked his readers to consider the merits of slavery, or to entertain the possibility that the Holocaust never occurred? Certainly not—at least, we should hope not: such rhetorical moves have rightly been deemed unacceptable in public discourse, and therefore completely unbefitting of a university professor. Are not justifications of rape, however speculative, similarly unacceptable?



*Please note that the 3 links cited above are accurate, but cannot be accessed directly. If you copy and paste the link into the address bar you should be able to find the page you're looking for.

President Joel Seligman, University of Rochester
President Seligman:

Attached you will find a petition to censure Professor Steven Landsburg. We respectfully request that you read and consider both the petition itself and the dozens of impassioned, well-argued comments posted by individual petitioners.


Daniel A. Nelson
PhD Candidate, English Department
University of Rochester

[Your name]

Recent signatures


    1. Reached 1,000 signatures
    2. Landsburg's Dishonest Apology

      Daniel Nelson
      Petition organiser

      Yesterday Landsburg finally got scared enough to apologize for his blog post. Not only that, he was scared enough to blatantly lie about what he said in it. He told Rochester's NBC station: "...my intent was to say...that the horror of rape is so great that we should rethink accepted principles of policy analysis that might sometimes minimize that horror." Anyone who read the post knows that it says nothing about "rethinking" Landsburg's absurd principles of policy analysis; it uses precisely those principles to question whether rape should be illegal.

      Do not be fooled by this apology; it's a sign that our goals are in sight--basically, Landsburg's trying to make a deal. NO DEAL. Protest tomorrow 2PM--let this man know that he will not be let off so easy.

    3. National Media Picks up the Story; PROTEST MONDAY 2 PM

      Daniel Nelson
      Petition organiser

      Huge amounts of media attention today: from the Huffington Post, Slate.com, Democrat & Chronicle. At 5 and 6 PM tonight, CW channel 13 will do a story on the campaign--watch at http://www.13wham.com

      Tomorrow, look for article in Chronicle for Higher Education

      Basically, we've burst open a long-suppressed dialogue about the questions: Can professors say whatever they want, even when their statements promote rape culture?; How can we create safer, less discriminatory learning environments on college campuses?; What can we do to stop professors like Landsburg from vitiating these learning environments?

      PROTEST 2 PM MONDAY, in the plaza outside Hutchison Hall on Campus. Media should be there. Pre-protest planning meeting Sunday 3:30, Wilson Commons, Hirst Lounge (flag area)

    4. Reached 500 signatures
    5. Press Coverage; Petition Flier

      Daniel Nelson
      Petition organiser

      Many thanks to John Portlock for helping with the distribution of fliers at the conference this morning. Our campaign to have Landsburg censured received some great press coverage, from two Democrat & Chronicle reporters.

      In addition, President Seligman expressed some laudable sentiments of outrage in response to Landsburg's comments (though he never explicitly mentioned the professor). Seligman's remarks, however, were bracketed by his explicit refusal to act on his sentiments. Landsburg can say whatever he wants, Seligman claims, because he has a right to "academic freedom." Our response has been simple: academic freedom does not entitle professors to publish comments that create an unsafe environment--and that is exactly what Landsburg did when he suggested it might be okay to rape individuals while they're unconscious.

      If you're interested in handing out fliers advertising the petition, please email me at dnels15@z.rochester.edu, and I will send you a copy.

    6. Tomorrow's "Confronting Sexual Assault on Campus" Conference

      Daniel Nelson
      Petition organiser

      At 9 AM tomorrow, President Seligman will deliver the opening address of a day-long conference on "confronting sexual assault on campus"; the speech will be given at the Interfaith Chapel (at River Campus). If you're in the area, please consider attending the address and, if possible, expressing your opinion re: Steven Landsburg to President Seligman himself.

    7. VP for Communications Bill Murphy Responds

      Daniel Nelson
      Petition organiser

      This afternoon, U of R Vice President for Communications Bill Murphy, writing on behalf of President Seligman, sent me a response to our petition--a response which I think we will all agree is completely inadequate, and almost offensive in its brevity. The gist of his letter is as follows (I've sent the entire letter, along with my response, to all petitioners). "The University of Rochester is committed to the academic freedom of our faculty and students. Their views are their own; they do not speak for the University."

      I encourage you all to contact Mr. Murphy: let him know that you will not be silenced by a couple of facile sentences about "academic freedom." He may be contacted at bmurphy@admin.rochester.edu

    8. Reached 250 signatures
    9. Decision-maker President Joel Seligman responds:

      President Joel Seligman

      The University of Rochester is committed to the academic freedom of our faculty and students. Their views are their own; they do not speak for the University.

      In his personal blog, Professor Landsburg poses some hypothetical question...

    10. Reached 100 signatures


    Reasons for signing

    • Nanci Steeb ROCHESTER, NY
      • 5 months ago

      This is a local college.

    • Angelica Kanganis BRONXVILLE, NY
      • 5 months ago

      As a graduate of the University of Rochester I am deeply offended by the lack of sensitivity and respect exhibited by Professor Landsburg.

    • Laurel Newton ROCHESTER, NY
      • 6 months ago

      Would he feel the same if it were a man being unconscious, and being the recipient of the same 'treatment' - His statement is vile no matter who the victim...

    • Anita Kanitz STUTTGART, GERMANY
      • 10 months ago

      "Women themselves have the right to live in dignity, in freedom from want and freedom from fear."

      -- Kofi Annan

    • laura shapiro SHOKAN, NY
      • 10 months ago



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