Ethics Program

The ethics program offers courses in theoretical and applied ethics for Agnes Scott College students as well as an annual series of public ethics lectures. Each year, speakers from a variety of fields approach a single topic of ethical importance or controversy. The Ethics Lecture Series is supported by the James T. and Ella Rather Kirk Fund. 

The ethics program at Agnes Scott College presents its 2017-18 lecture series:

"FREEDOM OF SPEECH"

Tuesday, October 17, 2017 
Andrew Altman, Georgia State University,
"Freedom of Hate Speech: American Legal Doctrine, Human Rights Law, and Holocaust Denial"

7 p.m., Letitia Pate Evans Hall, Rooms ABC

Speech that denigrates and demeans persons on account of their race, religion, ethnicity or sexuality – “hate speech” for short – rejects and even mocks one of the most precious of all human achievements:  the recognition of the equal right of all humans to freedom and the translation of that right into social and political institutions that make it effective.  This achievement is historically very recent and only imperfectly realized, even in parts of the world where it is a reality.   Hate speech attacks the achievement, and no corner of the earth is free from attack. 

Among the countries that have enshrined freedom of expression in their basic law, the United States stands alone in the extensive protection that it offers hate speech.  Outside of the U.S., there is much more room for the legal restriction of hate speech. American free-speech doctrine diverges not only from the domestic law of other countries; it also deviates from the provisions of major human rights treaties and from the authoritative interpretations given to those provisions. 

This talk will explain and assess the differences between U.S. law and international human rights law in relation to the treatment of hate speech.  The focus will be on a certain form of hate speech, Holocaust denial, which has been outlawed in a number of countries but which is constitutionally protected in the U.S.  A qualified defense of American legal doctrine will be offered.

Dr. Altman works in the areas of legal and political philosophy, with a focus on contemporary topics such as human rights, discrimination, genocide, and freedom of expression. He has a forthcoming book, coauthored with Susan Brison (Dartmouth):  Pornography: For and Against (Oxford University Press).  His recent publications include, “Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity: Dispelling the Conceptual Fog” and “Targeting al-Qaeda: Ethics and Law in the U.S. ‘War on Terror’.” 

Thursday, November 2, 2017
Mary Anne Franks, Professor of Law, University of Miami School of Law 
"Free Speech Elitism"

7 p.m., Letitia Pate Evans Hall, Rooms ABC

The benefits of free speech are well-known. Speech can reveal truth, allow for individual expression, and enable democratic self-governance. But the costs of free speech are also considerable. Speech can promote deception, violate privacy, and incite violence. Neither the benefits nor the costs of speech are equally borne across society. If protecting the speech of the powerful requires silencing the speech of the less powerful, can this really be called free speech?

Dr. Mary Anne Franks is a law professor at the University of Miami School of Law, where she teaches First Amendment Law, criminal law and procedure, family law, and law and technology. Dr. Franks is also the Vice-President and Legislative and Tech Policy Director of the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, a nonprofit organization dedicated to combating online abuse and discrimination. Dr. Franks has worked extensively both with members of Congress and state lawmakers on privacy and harassment legislation as well as with leading tech companies on online abuse policies. She is the author of the forthcoming book, The Constitutional Cult: Speech, Guns, and Civil Libertarianism (Stanford 2018). Her work has appeared in scholarly publications such as the California Law Review, the UCLA Law Review, and the Illinois Law Review, and in popular press publications such as The Atlantic, Time Magazine, and The Huffington Post. A graduate of Harvard Law School, Dr. Franks also holds doctorate and master's degrees in literature from Oxford University, where she studied on a Rhodes Scholarship. 

Tuesday, February 6, 2018
Homa Hoodfar, Concordia University 
"Academic Freedom and Critical Thinking as Transnational Rights"

7 p.m., Letitia Pate Evans Hall, Rooms ABC

Advancements in sciences, including social sciences, often result from the human capacity to ‘think outside the box’.  Irrespective of time and place, such efforts have frequently bumped up against entrenched conventions and norms. Indeed, unconventional intellectual approaches and critical thinking have cost some of our predecessors their freedom, and sometimes their lives, even as they opened the way for subsequent thinkers to claim the right to try to imagine the world in new and different ways.

Today we recognize this right as academic freedom. This collective right is entrusted to academics and their students, with the understanding that they are using the rigorous methods of their disciplines for the “common good” of societies.  This freedom allows scientists and scholars to pursue their endeavors without fear for their freedom, their livelihoods or their lives.  While students and scholars in North America and western Europe have for the last few decades taken this (perhaps imperfect) right for granted, scholars in other parts of the world are often in more precarious positions when their work critique the status quo.

There are today thousands of researchers and scholars behind the bars because their work is viewed by states and powerful elites as threatening to the existing power hierarchy. The academic community has so far failed to create an effective instrument to promote and protect such a right both as an idea and in practice. Thus, we have no operative structure to appeal to when the need to support our colleagues in other contexts arises. 

Professor Hoodfar’s own recent experience of arrest followed by 112 days in Iran’s Evin Prison on charges of ‘researching and dabbling in feminism’ has made her sharply aware of the extent to which scholars, and the ideal of academic freedom, are in danger globally. During her imprisonment, she questioned the practical meaning of academic freedom for herself and thousands of other scholars whose research takes them outside their national boundaries. Why, she wondered, have we yet to forge an international declaration regarding academic freedom, or made any serious effort to use the existing UNESCO (1997) document, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, or other international declarations concerning academic freedoms, to create a general charter on the right to academic freedom?  

Current political shifts to the right in Western Europe, and the Trump presidency in the U.S., suggest that it is ever more urgent to advocate for academic freedom as a transnational right. This will certainly require a road map starting with a ‘vernacularization’ of the meaning and practice of academic freedom, and a grounding of the construct in diverse local intellectual histories and political realities, even as we assert the universality of this right.

According to Hoodfar, such efforts should include expanding public discourse around academic freedom and its crucial role in keeping human scholarship rich and worthwhile.  Ensuring public support and legitimacy of academic freedom is an important guarantee for its continuity. Highlighting the importance of academic freedom in contexts oppressive to scholars who critique the status quo or ‘think outside the box’ can help deter states from quashing human intellectual endeavors in all their richness.

Homa Hoodfar is Professor of Anthropology, Emerita, at Concordia University, Montreal. Her primary research and expertise lies in legal and political anthropology. She examines the intersection of political economy; gender and citizenship rights; women’s formal and informal politics, gender and public sphere  in Muslim contexts. Professor Hoodfar has also been actively involved in Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML) Network’s  Research and Publication division since 1980s. Her publications include: Women’s Sport as Politics in Muslim Contexts WLUML (2015); Sexuality in Muslim Contexts: Restrictions and Resistance (edited with Anissa Hellie). London: Zed Books (2012); Electoral Politics: Making Quotas work for women   London: WLUML (2011)  (co-authored with Mona Tajali). The Muslim Veil in North America: issues and debates (Edited)  with Sajida Alvi, and Sheila McDonough, Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press (2003). Between Marriage and the Market, Berkeley: University of California Press(1997); Development, Change, and Gender in Cairo: A View from the Household. (edited with Diane Singerman) Indiana University Press, and numerous articles  based on her different research projects.

 Monday, February 19, 2018
Mary Kate McGowan, Professor of Philosophy, Wellesley College 
"Racist Speech in Public Places: A Case for Regulation"

7 p.m., Letitia Pate Evans Hall, Rooms ABC

Racist speech is currently protected under U.S. law. As the courts see it, such utterances are exercises of the speaker's right to free speech; they express an opinion about an issue of public concern and are therefore political expression and thus highly protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. According to the standard liberal defense of such speech, any associated harms are merely the price we pay for freedom of expression. In this talk, Professor McGowan argues that, even within the strict speech protections of the U.S. context, a compelling case can be made for the regulation of some racist speech in public spaces.

Mary Kate McGowan is the Margaret Clapp '30 Distinguished Alumna Professor of Philosophy at Wellesley College. She works at the intersection of the philosophy of language, feminism, and the philosophy of law. Her work focuses on the philosophical foundations of free speech, speech act theory, silencing, and the various connections between speech and harm. 

Monday, April 16, 2018
Samantha Harris, Foundation for Individual Rights in Education 
Title to be announced

7 p.m., Letitia Pate Evans Hall, Rooms ABC

The Ethics Program gratefully acknowledges the James T. and Ella Rather Kirk Fund for its support of the Ethics Lecture Series.

ALL TALKS ARE FREE AND OPEN TO THE PUBLIC.

Director of the Ethics Program
Lara Denis, Professor of Philosophy
ldenis@agnesscott.edu