A Prof with Painful Experience Argues for an Open Marketplace of Ideas

By on November 1, 2012

If you’ve been following FIRE for a while, the name Stephen Kershnar might ring some bells for you. In case you haven’t though, Kershnar is a professor of philosophy at the State University of New York at Fredonia (SUNY Fredonia) who, in 2006, was denied a promotion to full professor by SUNY Fredonia’s president on the basis of his newspaper columns in which Kershnar had criticized SUNY Fredonia policies. SUNY Fredonia then tried to foist an onerous agreement on Kershnar, requiring him to get unanimous approval by a university committee for all content written about the university. FIRE intervened at SUNY Fredonia, and the university ultimately backtracked, promoting him unconditionally to full professor, and dispensing with any prior review requirements for his writing. 

Kershnar, to put it mildly, knows a thing or two about the importance of First Amendment rights on campus, which he extolled in a column published yesterday in The Observer (Dunkirk, N.Y.), the same publication that had published one of the 2006 columns that had earned SUNY Fredonia’s ire. Kershnar highlights Greg’s recent column in The New York Times, noting that 

 
Administrations are chilling controversial speech and the people who are best in the know (faculty) are ones most chilled. Lukianoff argues that this chilling has resulted from the dramatic expansion in the number of administrators and staff as well as the culture of political correctness that wants to suppress what it takes to be racially insensitive speech and sexual harassment.

Kershnar then takes aim at SUNY Fredonia’s unconstitutional speech policies, including its "Commitment to Diversity" and its sexual harassment and internet usage policies, and posits several scenarios of real-world discourse that would be prohibited under such policies if they offended the sensitivities of any individual or group. Indeed, all three of the policies receive a red light rating from FIRE, meaning that they clearly and substantially restrict First Amendment rights and are plainly unconstitutional. 

Kershnar has been closer than most to the consequences of a university that prefers censorship and punishment to tolerance and debate. While FIRE successfully aided Kershnar in defending his First Amendment rights, SUNY Fredonia student and faculty rights remain at risk if such policies are perpetuated. 

I urge all Torch readers to read Kershnar’s excellent column at The Observer