EDITORIAL: Overturning of Livingston case was just
Transparency still needed in cases like this
Rutgers has found that James Livingston, a professor in the Department of History, did not violate the University's Policy Prohibiting Discrimination and Harassment, following University President Robert L. Barchi calling on the Office of Employment Equity (OEE) to re-examine its original findings, according to The Daily Targum.
OEE Director Lisa Grosskreutz did not respond to a request for comment at the time of publication. In a separate request for comment, Rutgers spokesperson Dory Devlin said OEE investigations are personnel matters, which the University does not comment on.
It is arguable that the initial decision of the University had potential validity in that Livingston’s unthoughtful statements against white people could be reflective of possible discriminatory conduct in class. After his statements were picked up by media outlets, starting with The Daily Caller, the subsequent outrage resulted in Livingston receiving approximately 230 threats of physical violence and insults and the University receiving both anonymous and signed complaints. But, there is no direct evidence that the complaints came from Rutgers community members rather than unaffiliated individuals.
Whether there was broad offense taken within the University’s community is indeterminable as there was no strong student movement or petition for action. The initial ruling held Livingston guilty of either altering a workplace environment or hurting students' abilities to get an education, yet, there is no provided proof of repercussions to his statements or outrage among those who would be potentially affected by his remarks.
Livingston told University officials that he was writing satirically, that his words were not a true expression of racism and that he had a right to express his opinions, according to a copy of the investigation that he shared with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. His appeal brings into question when statements deserve accountable punishment based on the weighted label of “racist.” His assertion that power is a fundamental and necessary characteristic for a statement to be racist has merit. Harmful racism is distinguishable by the typical feature of moving from oppressor to oppressed with power at the core of its use.
It is unclear if the first ruling was simply a quick response to provoked outrage or the result of a full deliberation on the First Amendment of faculty and the costs and benefits of their decision. Thus, Barchi made the just decision to remand and allow for further evaluation of the situation.
That being said, the re-evaluation process is fundamentally problematic when it does not act as a beacon for correct conduct and apply transparency to deliberation. There is no reason for lack of student input. Determining whether Livingston’s conduct in class is reflective of his public speech outside the classroom is crucial for a decision to be made. The claim that the OEE investigation is a personnel matter is to claim that students do not have a considerable investment in who teaches them.
The University ought to make the deliberation process more public, allowing for the Rutgers community to understand when speech is in violation and how the University interprets the speech in question. There is a difference between harmful racism and unthoughtful derogatory statements. Context is necessary for the denouncing of statements and we as a community ought to know why the initial decision was overruled. A lack of transparency inhibits accountability and prevents the creation of a general rule on when potentially offensive public statements become dangerous to the education of the student body.
Some people may still feel that Livingston was in violation of school policy and transparency would be beneficial for the Rutgers community as a whole. While the decision to overrule is seen as a just action based on the available information, there needs to be a clear threshold of when speech becomes detrimental to the welfare of a student's education in the classroom. When the degree of free speech of faculty members comes under question and the interests of students are impacted by the final decision, it is no longer simply an administrative issue — it is a University issue that demands full and comprehensive discourse in which a seat at the table is reserved for the student body.
The Daily Targum's editorials represent the views of the majority of the 150th editorial board. Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.