The independent news organization of Duke University

When free speech gets too expensive

When three white lacrosse players were found innocent of raping a black woman seven years ago, I estimated that they each received about three million dollars from Duke University in recompense for the mental anguish the episode inflicted upon them and their families. Perhaps they deserved this payout, though I think it seems unreasonably large considering that these young men spent not five minutes behind bars, while innocent men who have spent 15 to 20 or more years actually in prison have received less than a million.

It turns out that my estimate was off by a factor of six or seven. That inference derives from a piece of information that became public when one of the young gentlemen in question proved negligent concerning the payment of taxes. The feds sued him for 6.5 million dollars, which even a math dummy like me can translate into a settlement from Duke in the range of 20 million dollars for each of the three. I figure that the lacrosse coach, being more grievously harmed than the young men by the incident, got at least as much and maybe quite a bit more. Throw in other payments and fees, and we come up with perhaps one hundred million dollars that this incident sucked up from the Duke money supply.

Being from a working class family and having also spent my whole career near the bottom rung of the salary ladder, I am not a wealthy man, but I have for three or four decades contributed over a thousand dollars every year to the Faculty Scholarship Fund. I believe passionately in providing financial support for students who otherwise could not afford to attend this elite university. So it grieves me to see my lifelong contribution quaffed off like a thimble of brandy down the gigantic red maw of legal predation. This raises the obvious question: Was it necessary?

In a word: no. If everyone concerned had quietly let the legal system do its work, we could have put that hundred million into preventing students from leaving Duke broke and desperately in debt. (I know of several who left owing Duke around a hundred thousand dollars.) But there was too much talk from faculty and administrators of an inflammatory and legally liable nature. I don’t blame our President, whom I remember saying on television as the media were going hysterical, “The three captains tell me they are innocent.” But he stood absolutely alone, with not a single faculty voice that I know of giving him public support at that crucial moment, while on the contrary a boiling tsunami of faculty rage was rushing his way.

At the forefront of that tsunami was a full page ad in The Chronicle, endorsed by 88 faculty members, that poured gasoline on the flames, tying the case to a campus-wide culture of white male depravity. I think it was a mistake to launch this ad into so supercharged an atmosphere. There is always a likelihood of some men behaving abominably on any campus, but this was not a good time to agitate that issue, particularly as related to these young men who were facing maybe 20 years in prison without yet having their day in court.

To be fair to the vocal 88, the district attorney had from the outset claimed to have infallible evidence of guilt in the case. Who could have known at that time that the legal process was being directed by a prosecutor of crackpot and/or criminal propensities—a man who had to spend one symbolic night in jail for his handling of the case? That prosecutor’s motive, it appears, was influenced by his need to win an imminent election, which would fatten his annuity for his also imminent retirement. Perhaps he really believed (or needed to believe) that the young men were guilty. But he took unconscionable measures to stave off any proof of their innocence, and he took the extraordinary step of making an incendiary speech at NCCU on how he would not permit a bunch of rich, young, white men from Duke get away with raping a poor, black girl from NCCU. At least partly on the strength of black rage, he did win his election.

It was disappointing a year later, after the three men’s innocence was officially declared, to see the same 88 colleagues republish their earlier statement, as though no second thoughts were necessary. Here’s a second thought: Someone else paid for that exercise of free speech, namely the phantom students who might have become real Dukies with the help of that hundred million dollars. I believe in free speech as much as anyone, but I do hope we will all consider who pays for it if and when some similar situation again arises.

Victor Strandberg is a professor of English. His column is the second installment in a semester-long series of biweekly columns written by members of the humanities faculty at Duke.


Share and discuss “When free speech gets too expensive” on social media.