Lecture causes dispute - UNLV accused of limiting free speech

April 2005

A UNLV professor under fire for comments he made about homosexuals during a class lecture last year demanded Friday that the university stop threatening to punish him. "I have done absolutely nothing wrong," said the professor, Hans Hoppe, a conservative libertarian economist with almost 20 years teaching experience at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, on Hoppe's behalf, sent a letter to UNLV officials alleging that the university violated Hoppe's free speech rights and his right to academic freedom. “The charge against professor Hoppe is totally specious and without merit," reads the letter from ACLU attorney Allen Lichtenstein. He said they would sue the university if necessary, though they hope to avoid it. UNLV officials would not comment on the case, saying they cannot talk publicly about personnel matters.

Hoppe, 55, a world-renowned economist, author and speaker, said he was giving a lecture to his money and banking class in March when the incident occurred. The subject of the lecture was economic planning for the future. Hoppe said he gave several examples to the class of about 30 upper-level undergraduate students on groups who tend to plan for the future and groups who do not. Very young and very old people, for example, tend not to plan for the future, he said. Couples with children tend to plan more than couples without.

As in all social sciences, he said, he was speaking in generalities. Another example he gave the class was that homosexuals tend to plan less for the future than heterosexuals. Reasons for the phenomenon include the fact that homosexuals tend not to have children, he said. They also tend to live riskier lifestyles than heterosexuals, Hoppe said.

He said there is a belief among some economists that one of the 20th century's most influential economists, John Maynard Keynes, was influenced in his beliefs by his homosexuality. Keynes espoused a "spend it now" philosophy to keep an economy strong, much as President Bush did after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Hoppe said the portion of the lecture on homosexuals lasted perhaps 90 seconds, while the entire lecture took up his 75-minute class. There were no questions or any discussion from the students about the homosexual comments, he said.

"I have given lectures like this for 18 years," said Hoppe, a native of Germany who joined UNLV's faculty in 1986. "I have given this lecture all over the world and never had any complaints about it." But within days of the lecture, he was notified by school officials that a student had lodged an informal complaint. The student said Hoppe's comments offended him. A series of formal hearings ensued.

Hoppe said that, at the request of university officials, he clarified in his next class that he was speaking in generalities only and did not mean to offend anyone. As an example of what he meant, he offered this: Italians tend to eat more spaghetti than Germans, and Germans tend to eat more sauerkraut than Italians. It is not universally true, he said, but it is generally true. The student then filed a formal complaint, Hoppe said, alleging that Hoppe did not take the complaint seriously.

He said university officials first said they would issue him a letter of reprimand and dock him a week's pay. That option was rejected by Hoppe's dean and by the university provost, Hoppe said. More hearings ensued, he said. In the end, the university gave him until Friday to accept its latest offer of punishment: It would issue him a letter of reprimand and he would give up his next pay increase.

Hoppe, a tenured full professor, contacted the ACLU on the recommendation of an attorney friend of his. Hoppe is now their client. "I felt like I was the victim," he said, "not the student." ACLU officials said the validity of Hoppe's economic theories does not matter. It is his right to espouse them in class. "We don't subscribe to Hans' theories and certainly understand why some students find them offensive," said Gary Peck, the ACLU of Nevada's executive director. "But academic freedom means nothing if it doesn't protect the right of professors to present scholarly ideas that are relevant to their curricula, even if they are controversial and rub people the wrong way."

Hoppe said he is dumbfounded by the university's response to the student's complaint. It is not his job, he said, to consider how a student might feel about economic theories. "Our task is to teach what we consider to be right," he said. The offended student, he said, should have been told to "grow up."

Hoppe protested that university officials declined to speak to other students in the class to find out what actually happened and even rejected letters he solicited from a half-dozen students. UNLV's general counsel, Richard Linstrom, would not talk about Hoppe's case, but said the university values free speech.

"The administration of UNLV is fully committed to academic freedom in all respects," he said. Linstrom said he was in a Board of Regents meeting most of Friday and had not seen the ACLU's letter.

Lichtenstein, the ACLU lawyer, said the university's response to Hoppe's situation might stifle free speech on the campus. "If he can be silenced, that's going to create self-censorship among other faculty members who won't say anything controversial," he said. "Who's going to lose in all this? The students."