UR President Joel Seligman issued a statement on Wednesday, March 7 condemning the remarks of UR economics professor Steven Landsburg, who, in a blog post on Friday, March 2, incited discussion about the inflammatory comments Rush Limbaugh made about Georgetown Law student Sandra Fluke and the national debate on birth control.
Fluke testified before congressional Democrats that she wanted her college health plan to cover birth control, which prompted Limbaugh to publicly call her a “slut” and a “prostitute” on his radio talk show over the course of three days last week, saying in one instance that Fluke was “having sex so frequently that she can’t afford all the birth-control pills that she needs.”
Limbaugh garnered credence for his remarks from Fluke’s testimony, in which she said that Georgetown students spend $1,000 per year on contraception, implying, he said, that Fluke is having sex more than five times per day.
Limbaugh apologized for his remarks, saying in a post on his website on Saturday, March 3 that he “chose the wrong words in my analogy of the situation.” His apology came a day after President Barack Obama telephoned Fluke to offer his support in the wake of Limbaugh’s personal attack.
President Obama also thanked Fluke for her public backing of his regulations mandating contraception coverage, the latest development in what has increasingly become a raging political furor.
Prior to Limbaugh’s apology, Landsburg deemed Limbaugh’s remarks a “requisite mockery” and his choice to label her a slut because of her support for free campus contraceptives a “spot-on analogy” in the first of three blog posts on the topic, the first published on Friday, March 2.
“While Ms. Fluke herself deserves the same basic respect we owe to any human being, her position — which is what’s at issue here — deserves none whatsoever,” Landsburg wrote on his blog www.thebigquestions.com/blog. “It deserves only to be ridiculed, mocked and jeered. To treat it with respect would be a travesty.”
Landsburg went on to say that a better word for Fluke would be “prostitute,” rather than “slut,” even though she is not asking to be paid for sex. He goes on to write that she should in fact be labeled an “extortionist” since she “will be having sex whether she gets paid or not.”
But, he wrote, the word choice was irrelevant.
“Whether or not [Limbaugh] chose the right word, what I just don’t get is why the pro-respect crowd is aiming all its fire at Rush,” he wrote in the post. “Which is more disrespectful — his harsh language or Sandra Fluke’s attempt to pick your pocket? That seems like a pretty clear call to me.”
In his statement to the UR community, Seligman wrote that he was “deeply disappointed” with Landsburg’s remarks.
In the afternoon after Seligman released his statement, 30 UR students gathered in Hutchison Hall. They organized to express their discontent with Landsburg and interrupted his Economics 108 lecture. According to a flier distributed at the event, the protesters aimed to denounce Landsburg’s “attempt to smear a gender with derogatory terms.”
“Landsburg has made indefensible comments about women,” senior Alykhan Alani wrote in an email urging students to participate in the protest on Wednesday. “Regardless of your stance on the issues of subsidized birth control, we cannot allow such language to go unnoticed and unchecked.”
Seligman wrote in his statement that he is “outraged that any professor would demean a student in this fashion. To openly ridicule, mock or jeer a student in this way is about the most offensive thing a professor can do. We are here to educate, to nurture, to inspire, not to engage in character assassination.”
Seligman acknowledged that Landsburg has the right to express his views, but added that “no reasonable person would ever assume that he speaks for UR” and that he too has the right to express his beliefs.
“Landsburg now has made himself newsworthy as one of Limbaugh’s few defenders,” Seligman continued. “I wish he had focused on the ideal of a university as an institution that promotes the free exchange of ideas and lively debate at its best in an atmosphere of civil discourse in which the dignity of every individual is respected.”
When asked for a response to Seligman’s statement, Landsburg wrote the following in an email to the Campus Times on Wednesday, March 7.
“President Seligman says that the mission of the University is to promote the free exchange of ideas and lively debate, and I agree. That mission is undermined whenever a member of the academic community elevates raw self-interest over the exchange of ideas.
That’s what Sandra Fluke did. She observed that contraceptives are expensive, and therefore demanded that somebody other than herself and her fellow students pick up the tab. She didn’t even pretend to be interested in debating any of the serious issues raised by the question of when some of us should pick up the tab for others’ expenses.”
Landsburg also said that many of the comments on his blog post have slightly impacted his views on the matter.
“The commenters have offered many bright and lively arguments and observations, some of which have led me to modify some of my views,” he wrote in the same email. “This is a wonderful thing. It’s also the very opposite of Sandra Fluke’s approach, which amounts to a contemptuous dismissal of the very possibility of engaging these issues through intellectual discourse. I’d have expected a distinguished academic to feel the same way.”
Many UR students have expressed outrage over Landsburg’s blog post.
Freshman Zachary Taylor, who observed the protest, said he found Landsburg’s comments offensive, but that he disagreed with the way the protest was executed.
“By refusing to say anything, the protesters seemed to verify everything Landsburg said about their anti-intellectual attitude,” he said. “I thought that [Landsburg] deserved a day to clarify and/or apologize, and that [Students for a Democratic Society (SDS)] should have contacted him directly before taking this kind of action.”
It is unclear if SDS was the primary group that orchestrated the protest.
Other students thought the protest was ineffective.
“Angry people disrupted the class, gave people fliers and just stood there to get in the way,” sophomore Andrew Nocka said. “It was obnoxious and the wrong way to go about getting their point across.”
In response to the interruption to his lecture, Landsburg wrote to the Campus Times:
“My only comment on the events in ECO 108 today is that the protestors were stealing from the students who have paid to learn something. In their contempt for the value of ideas, they seem to be in close solidarity with Sandra Fluke.”
Freshman Jordan Oroshiba said he does not believe that Landsburg’s position at UR should be threatened by the controversy.
“As long as Landsburg’s personal views, or any professors’ personal views for that matter, do not interfere with their ability to provide the excellent education and accepting environment which UR is known for, then they should be allowed to remain a member of our wonderful and diverse community,” he said.
One comment posted on Landsburg’s blog bespoke of the ambiguity expressed by some students and faculty.
“Is Landsburg being punished?” a commenter, who wrote under the moniker “Interested,” posed. “As a truth seeker, wouldn’t Landsburg have served his own interests better if he had made the same points without the crude name-calling? Couldn’t he have provoked a passionate discussion, like the ones being held right now, about the legitimacy of subsidizing contraception, rather than about rhetoric and academic freedom?”
Additional reporting by Michaela Kerem, class of 2015.
Buletti is a member of the class of 2013.