One of the questions included in the Survey of Climate, Communication, and Voice sent out to Saint Louis University students asked whether they felt free to express their opinions without fear of reprisal from the University. Ironically, the recent controversy over that same survey has made it clear that freedom of expression does not exist at this university, regardless of how students responded to the question.
As detailed in our news coverage of the story, several faculty members expressed dissatisfaction with the wording of the survey. They claimed that there were too few questions directly addressing students’ opinions of University President Lawrence Biondi, S.J. Since Biondi is at the center of the ongoing controversy, the survey seemed to avoid, rather than address, the important issue of SLU’s leadership.
Dr. Steven Harris reacted by creating an alternative survey in which references to “the University” were replaced with “the University president.” This alteration would have made the survey more relevant to SLU’s current concerns, namely, the standing votes of no confidence in Biondi from the Faculty Senate and the Student Government Association.
SLU’s General Counsel responded by threatening to sue Harris over copyright infringement, noting that he retained most of the wording from the original survey produced by the independent company Psychological Associates. Now Harris, president of SLU’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors, is embroiled in a conflict with the University, accusing the General Counsel of attempting prior restraint —that is, censoring him before he even issued the survey.
Whether or not the survey was poorly worded is a separate issue, discussed below in our second editorial. Rather, the issue here is SLU’s treatment of one of its tenured faculty members.
The lawsuit threatened by the General Counsel may not hold any weight. Surveys tend to be formulaic, not the sort of original writing that copyright law is intended to defend. How many ways can a question about communication at the University be phrased? Besides, it is the University threatening to sue Harris, not Psychological Associates — the company that would hold the rights to the survey in the first place.
Clearly the proposed lawsuit is a sham, intended to prevent Harris from communicating with the student body. It is a structural flaw of the U.S. legal system that litigation can be used as a weapon to financially damage others, regardless of whether the lawsuit has any merit. And with the notoriously subpar salary of faculty at SLU, it seems unlikely that Harris would be able to combat the University’s vast resources, even if he knew he would win in court.
Maybe students are protected from this sort of bullying and censorship by SLU’s administration, but clearly the faculty is not. This isn’t the first time SLU has used its financial muscle to attack a faculty member via the legal system. Recall when, in 2009, Dr. Avis Meyer engaged in a legal battle with the University over another copyright issue — for the name and slogan of this very newspaper.
Now the administration, despite its empty promises of increased communication and shared governance, is playing the same game with another faculty member. It remains to be seen how the rest of the faculty will respond to this draconic exercise of university power and absolute disregard for the values espoused in the school’s Jesuit mission.
However the survey was worded and however the students responded, the results are clear: not everyone has freedom of expression at this university.