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

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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 ( ) 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” ( ).

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 ( ). 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?



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