A Puzzling Critique

By March 2, 2005

A few FIRE supporters have written in to ask about a recent article which originally appeared in the February 28, 2005, issue of The Nation and has also circulated around the web. The article, written by Patricia Williams, contains a rather disjointed attack on FIRE. She begins with a discussion of Prince Harry’s Nazi costume and recent controversial remarks by a Marine general, then moves on to a discussion of free speech in higher education (mentioning Ward Churchill). She says this about FIRE:

In this war of words and polemical personalities, there is an increasing privatization of speech. New, well-funded organizations like the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) specifically urge universities to monitor and divest themselves of those engaged in “rank political indoctrination”—which even they rather sheepishly acknowledge is an awfully thin line away from political speech. The model of the university they espouse is not the one envisioned by Louis Brandeis, to whom even open antagonism was a necessary component of civic engagement because “the greatest menace to freedom is an inert people…. The path of safety lies in the opportunity to discuss freely supposed grievances and proposed remedies.” These days, the ability to speak has become subject to the whims of a literal rather than metaphorical marketplace. According to FIRE, “voluntary association” is a measure of academic freedom and funding is an “expressive act.”

And so we find ourselves in an era when speakers like Michael Moore are spurned by campuses because major donors might get upset and students don’t want their funds spent on anything they don’t agree with. We seem to have entered a time of shunning that bears a passing strange resemblance to blacklisting. And with that shunning an ethic of ”don’t listen.” “A scholar,” says FIRE, “is entitled to shout his ideas from the rooftops, but he or she is not also entitled to do so in front of an audience or to do so while being bankrolled by those who deeply disagree with those ideas.”

Obviously, Williams has little or no familiarity with FIRE. From its founding, FIRE has consistently advocated the free marketplace of ideas. To critique us, she has pulled quotes from our recent letter to Columbia. In that letter, we make a simple and obvious point: while a private college is free to adopt a certain ideology and hire faculty consistent with that ideology, it cannot do so without expecting students and donors will react negatively. Just as Patricia Williams would no doubt reject any solicitations for support from Bob Jones University (because she disagrees with the university’s message and mission), it should hardly be surprising if certain donors reject Columbia’s solicitations if Columbia is perceived as a hard-line, “anti-Zionist” school.

This is not an argument that speech should be privatized. At Columbia, it is already privatized. Nor is it an argument against the kind of “open antagonism” that Williams apparently embraces. In fact, FIRE’s argument is that complete ideological uniformity is often antithetical to the free marketplace of ideas, and Columbia (and other schools) have the freedom to create a better marketplace through hiring individuals with diverse opinions.

If Williams wants to understand our positions, perhaps she should start with FIRE’s recent letter to Colorado in support of Ward Churchill’s free speech rights. Or, if that letter is too long, she could simply read this post from Monday. If anyone stands for the marketplace of ideas, it is FIRE.

Schools: Columbia University University of Colorado at Boulder