Commitment to Open Dialogue & Debate

In November 2019, the Dean appointed an ad hoc faculty committee on Classroom Dialogue and Debate. Based on the work of the committee, in August 2020, the faculty adopted the following Statement of Faculty Principles pertaining to respectful debate and the full and open exchange of ideas at the law school.

Statement of Faculty Principles

In light of the current state of dialogue and debate in this country, the faculty of the Antonin Scalia Law School hereby reaffirms our commitment to freedom of inquiry and freedom of speech for all members of our community.

Starting some years ago, many schools have promulgated official speech codes that seek to prevent students from expressing unpopular opinions. Thanks largely to the efforts of Scalia Law faculty, George Mason University as a whole has earned the highest rating for freedom of speech from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. We are proud of that accomplishment.

Recently, it has become far too common for colleges and universities to impose sanctions on faculty members whose research or public statements do not conform to the reigning climate of approved opinion. As pressures for conformity increase throughout our society, it is even becoming dangerous to show insufficient enthusiasm for certain causes and beliefs.

This faculty has always rejected the imposition of any political or ideological orthodoxy by us or on us. We recognize no hierarchy of authority in the world of ideas. Professors and students each have exactly the same right to express their opinions, to challenge views with which they disagree, and to participate as they see fit in the public life of the nation. They also have the same moral obligation to foster an atmosphere of civility and tolerance. The faculty strongly opposes efforts—whether from within our community or from outside—to pressure us or the school’s administration to engage in the repression of unpopular opinions, whether we as individuals agree or disagree with those opinions.

In the classroom, of course, there is necessarily an inequality between the instructor and the students. We think it is self-evident that professors should not use their authority in the service of political or ideological indoctrination. We also think it is self-evident that professors should not belittle or intimidate students who express views with which the instructor disagrees, or encourage students to belittle or intimidate their classmates.

Conversely, students should recognize that professors exercise a special authority in the classroom because they have special responsibilities and obligations. The faculty as a whole establishes the curriculum. Individual professors decide what will be studied in their courses, what topics will be discussed in class, and what questions will be dealt with in the limited time that is available. Students are welcome to express their own opinions about these matters, but the professors are responsible for the decisions, and they have an obligation to exercise their own judgment in making those decisions.

Students should also recognize that professors are not doing them a service when they treat our educational mission as a popularity contest. Several years ago, President Hanna Holborn Gray of the University of Chicago made the following observation:

Education should not be intended to make people comfortable, it is meant to make them think. Universities should be expected to provide the conditions within which hard thought, and therefore strong disagreement, independent judgment, and the questioning of stubborn assumptions, can flourish in an environment of the greatest freedom.

President Gray’s statement has important applications throughout any university, but her words are especially relevant to law schools. Effective legal training requires that students be challenged—by their instructors and by their classmates—to make well-reasoned arguments, often about topics that are controversial or personally painful. Lawyers are frequently compelled to grapple with issues that they would really prefer not to think about at all. Nobody enjoys having the shortcomings of their own arguments exposed, or being forced to acknowledge that serious arguments can be made in support of conclusions with which they strongly disagree. These experiences are not by any means the only components of legal education, but professors who focus on sparing their students from unpleasant disagreements are actually cheating them.

This faculty aspires to provide our students with a genuine education. We will therefore maintain our commitment to respectful debate and the full and open exchange of ideas. That commitment extends to our classrooms, to our scholarship, and to any other public discussions in which we choose to participate. As Daniel D. Polsby put it several years ago, when he was our Dean, “There has to be a place in the world where controversial ideas and points of view are aired out and given space. This is that place.”