College Professor Faces Sanctions For Elevator Joke As First Amendment Clashes With Political Correctness

Eric RisbergAP Images

Although the memorial plaque on the steps outside of Sproul Hall on the University of California campus in Berkeley, California, reads, “The most beautiful thing in the world is freedom of speech,” one man’s words in 2018 could have a disastrous impact on his career as an educator. The plaque marks the location where Mario Savio launched the Free Speech Movement on December 2, 1964, when he gave his iconic “bodies upon the gears” speech.

Fast forward to 2018 and Professor Richard Ned Lebow is in serious trouble for what he considered a harmless remark. Lebow, a professor of international political theory at King’s College in London, England, is now facing discipline and sanctions for a two-word joke he made in a crowded elevator in San Francisco, California, in April 2018.

According to the National Review, Professor Lebow, the 2014 recipient of International Studies Association’s distinguished scholar award, was asked which floor he wanted and Lebow, who is 74-years-old, responded with one of the 20th centuries oldest jokes, saying, “ladies’ lingerie.” At the time of the incident, Lebow was in San Francisco to attend an ISA conference.

Even the issue of who said what is in dispute. Simona Sharoni, a professor of gender studies at Merrimack College, insists she was the person who asked Lebow which floor he wanted, but he claims it was a man who asked the question.

Professor Sharoni returned to her hotel room, and several hours later, after checking the ISA’s code of conduct, she filed a formal complaint against Professor Lebow. She was not only offended by his words, but she was also apparently angry at herself for not responding to Lebow directly while she was still in the elevator.

In her official complaint, the professor referred to her displeasure over her failure to call out to Professor Lebow, as mentioned in an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Describing her interaction with another woman in the elevator, Sharoni wondered why they didn’t confront Lebow.

“After they walked out, the woman standing next to me turned to me and said, ‘I wonder if we should have told them that it is no longer acceptable to make these jokes!’ I am still trying to come to terms with the fact that we froze and didn’t confront him.”

For the most part, the response to Professor Sharoni’s complaint has been negative. Greg Gutfield, the host of The Five on Fox News, called her “bitter, sad, and humorless” during his opening monologue.

Based on what is available on social media, the general public appears to favor Professor Lebow.

Another tweet even mentioned old Looney Toons animated shorts from the 1930s and 1940s.

However, Professor Lebow is probably not laughing as he now faces disciplinary sanctions from the ISA’s Committee on Professional Rights and Responsibilities. Despite Lebow’s attempt to informally resolve the complaint by Professor Sharoni, as suggested in the ISA’s own code of conduct, the committee found that Lebow had, in fact, violated the code.

A bonfire set by demonstrators protesting a scheduled speaking appearance by Milo Yiannopoulos burns on Sproul Plaza at the University of California at Berkeley.Featured image credit: Ben MargotAP Images

The Washington Post revealed that Lebow might have complicated matters when he wrote to Sharoni in an attempt to explain his remark in the elevator.

“Like you, I am strongly opposed to the exploitation, coercion or humiliation of women. As such evils continue, it seems to me to make sense to direct our attention to real offenses, not those that are imagined or marginal. By making a complaint to ISA that I consider frivolous — and I expect, will be judged this way by the ethics committee — you may be directing time and effort away from the real offenses that trouble us both.”

As reported by Fox News, the ethics committee did not find Sharoni’s complaint “frivolous.” The Executive Director of the ISA, Mark A. Boyer, told Lebow that his alleged joke was “offensive and inappropriate,” and Lebow was ordered to make an “unequivocal apology” to Professor Sharoni.

Apparently outraged by the ISA’s ruling, Professor Lebow has refused to apologize, and as a result, the case is still under review. In a comment in an article in Reason, Lebow called the decision “a horrifying and chilling example of political correctness” that “encourages others to censor their remarks for fear of retribution.”

Ms. Sharoni responded to Mr. Lebow by claiming he was using his political correctness defense as an excuse to prevent women from speaking out against sexism and misogyny.

“For decades, women and other marginalized groups in the academy had to put up with white men who decided what counts as a violation and what is ‘frivolous, As someone who has dedicated her life to confronting sexism (and other forms of discrimination and oppression) in academic spaces, I cannot and will not remain silent when misogyny is at play.”

Lurking in the background of the disagreement between Professor Lebow and Professor Sahroni is another troubling free speech incident. Conservatives complain that free speech rights are often controlled by the people who hold the political power in a given city, state or country. One hot-button item that brought this to the forefront was the lack of any official punishment for Professor Randa Jarrar from Fresno State University after she posted several posted obscenity-laced tweets slamming Barbara Bush and the Bush family following the death of the former first lady.

Randa Jarrar and her now infamous tweets.Featured image credit: Richard ShotwellInvision/AP Images

While Professor Lebow has been ordered to apologize or face disciplinary sanctions for his alleged joke, Professor Randa Jarrar refused to apologize, and she will not be punished for her remarks.

Fresno State University President Joseph Castro explained the university’s decision. As reported by Fox News, Castro said that Jarrar’s words were “insensitive, inappropriate and an embarrassment to the university,” but they “are protected free speech under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.”

As expected, social media erupted with comments addressing the dichotomy between the case of Professor Lebow and the official response to Professor Jarrar’s social media posts attacking Barbara Bush.

yet what happened to the Professor that tweeted about Barbara Bush? Nothing. It is ok to wish someone dead and harass a mental health hotline but it is not ok to repeat a joke that has been around for 50 years and didn’t apply to any person but a location or a piece of clothing?

— Evelyn Smith (@eveie6fan) May 9, 2018

Perhaps Ruth Marcus had the calmest reaction to the Lebow incident and the issue of free speech in her thoughtful opinion piece for the Washington Post.

“This episode reflects not only a generational and cultural divide but also the unfortunate intersection of two prickly personalities with the bad luck to be stuck in the same elevator. She shouldn’t have leaped to file a grievance; he shouldn’t have added fuel by labeling her charge “frivolous.”

“Nonetheless, count me with Lebow. The days of women feeling compelled to stay silent in the face of sexist remarks or conduct are thankfully on the way out. Hear something, say something, by all means.”

“But for goodness’ sake, let’s maintain some sense of proportion and civility as we figure out how to pick our way through the minefield of modern gender relations. Not every comment that offends was intended that way, and intent matters. Maybe check in with the speaker before going nuclear? Maybe consider that there is a spectrum of offensiveness? That not every stray statement by a 76-year-old man warrants a resort to disciplinary procedures?”