Rights for Some People

July 8, 2009

Should someone who teaches human rights back human rights for all people?

That's the question being raised by some students at New York University's law school, who are upset that a visiting professor in the fall semester, slated to teach human rights law, is Thio Li-ann of the National University of Singapore, an outspoken opponent of gay rights. Thio has argued repeatedly and graphically that her country should continue to criminalize gay sexual acts.

In a speech to lawmakers in Singapore, Thio said that gay sex is "contrary to biological design and immoral," argued that gay people can change their sexual orientation, said that anal sex is "like shoving a straw up your nose to drink," and rejected arguments based on a diversity of sexual orientations by saying that "diversity is not license for perversity." (The text of her talk is here, and YouTube video is available in three parts -- here and here and here.)

NYU OUTLaw, a group of gay and lesbian students at the law school, last week sent an e-mail message to all students drawing attention to Thio's statements, saying that it was crucial to "raise awareness of anti-gay statements made by an NYU visiting professor" because "it is important for LGBT students and allies to be aware of her views in order to make fully informed decisions regarding class registration."

The letter does not call for the invitation to Thio to be rescinded. Ethan Park, co-chair of the group, said that the organization wanted to gather reactions before deciding what it was going to ask NYU to do, and that discussions were taking place electronically as students are scattered for summer internships.

"One of the options would be to take a strong position and demand that the law school rescind the appointment, but others say that this could be an opportunity to teach about why we have somebody at the law school who promotes hatred," he said. Park said that the group has been receiving many strong reactions from students and alumni. He said there is widespread anger over Thio's appointment, but a range of views about what to do now.

In an e-mail interview, Thio said that those who are attacking her are engaged in political correctness.

"Everyone is entitled to their opinion, free conscience, free thought -- that is a cardinal principle for every academic community. I hold to it, in my own law school, and I would expect the NYU law community to do so as well. We can be united in commitment to this principle, without slavishly bowing to a demanded uniformity or dogma of political correctness set by elite diktat. I cannot say I am impressed by this ugly brand of politicking which I hope is not endemic," she wrote.

Thio added that she "was encouraged when the president of an NYU student organization committed to free debate wrote to welcome me and to point out that the negative, prejudicial and frankly, hostile views expressed are not representative of everyone in the student body. While I am disappointed at the intolerant animosity directed at me by strangers who do not know me and have decided to act on their own prejudices, forged from whatever sources, I am nonetheless glad that there are still some at NYU, who uphold a commitment to academic freedom and who entertain dissent with respect. As a recent NYU graduate, a Muslim friend of mine said, one must have courage in the face of bullying."

On the substance of her views on gay rights, she argued in the e-mail that plenty of Americans may agree with her, and those who don't have no right to impose their values on other countries.

She wrote: "Do some Americans by appropriating the rhetoric of human rights assume they can impose their views on another sovereign state? Is there a human right to sodomy? Is this a core right or a contested one? There are countervailing views that this is the wrong way to characterize the issue -- so do students who dislike this view refuse to engage with dissenting views? Or seek to censor views they disagree with? That's hubris. I think certain Americans have to realize the fact that there are a diversity of views on the subject and it is not a settled matter; there is no universal norm and it is nothing short of moral imperialism to suggest there is. Correct me if I am wrong, but there is no consensus on this even within the U.S. Supreme Court and American society at large, even post Lawrence v. Texas." (The court case is the 2003 Supreme Court ruling that barred states from criminalizing consenting sexual acts between adults of the same sex.)

Thio will be teaching at NYU under a program that brings legal scholars from all over the world to the campus as visiting professors. John Beckman, an NYU spokesman, said that faculty panels review and select candidates based on "a record of excellent scholarship and fine teaching." He added: "Professor Thio was selected on the basis of her published academic scholarship, not on the basis of the statement she made to the Singapore Parliament as a member of that body. We believe that she will make a valuable contribution to our global classroom and to the intellectual life of the law school when she is here this fall."

Beckman also noted that the law school at NYU "has a long record of opposing discrimination based on sexual orientation, and we are well known for being a supportive home for an activist lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community. Many in our faculty, staff, and student body will be in sharp disagreement with Professor Thio on the content of her speech, and we expect there will be a dynamic exchange on these issues."

Cary Nelson, national president of the American Association of University Professors, said that he would not advise NYU to rescind the invitation to Thio to teach there. But he said that it would be legitimate to raise questions about whether she should be teaching human rights.

"Academic freedom protects you from retaliation for your extramural remarks, but it does not protect you from being prohibited from teaching in an area where you are not professionally competent, and there are doubts on whether she has the competency in human rights," Nelson said. He said that there is in fact an "international consensus, save a few countries like Iran" that gay people should not be treated as criminals.

Nelson also said that in a tenure decision, he would judge a candidate -- however offensive his or her views on unrelated subjects -- only on a question of whether the person's scholarship and teaching in his or her discipline met appropriate standards. But in a hiring decision (whether for a visiting or permanent position), he said, it is appropriate to consider other factors, and the reality is that it's impossible to know what professors are really thinking when they vote one way or another.

Professors can appropriately ask prior to appointments, he said, whether hiring someone whose views on certain subjects are "poisonous" could limit "the department's ability to do its business."

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