Academic freedom ever important

By on April 11, 2005

Besides really irritating a lot of people, University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill’s essay on the causes of the World Trade Center attacks has put a media spotlight on the issue of freedom of expression on college campuses.

This in itself is a very good thing. Whatever one’s opinion of the content of Churchill’s essay (and some of the logic does sound highly suspect to me), he was well within his rights to release a controversial analysis of the attacks into the academic community. This ability to participate in an unrestricted exchange of ideas is called academic freedom, and it must be protected.

Academic freedom is a component of intellectual freedom, and if intellectual freedom is undermined on American college campuses, it stands a diminished chance of thriving in the nation as a whole.

One might expect, though, that the threat to intellectual freedom is small within the higher education environment.

After all, colleges and universities are the quintessential examples of centers of free thought. Aren’t they?

Sadly not – at least not in this era. Institutions of higher learning are, in frightening numbers (for even one transgressor is too many), restricting freedom of expression on their campuses. From the Ivy League to community colleges, students and faculty alike are being silenced, censored and forced to espouse the administration’s viewpoint.

A leading organization in the fight to protect freedoms on college campuses is the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). The group has successfully brought litigation against a number of institutions found to be imposing unjustifiable limits on student and/or faculty expression. Its Web site, www.fire.org, is an excellent source of information on specific cases of higher-education restrictions on individual liberty. From FIRE’S archive, I have room for but one representative example followed by a sampling of case headlines:

Gonzaga University: "Censorship of Hate Speech."

The campus College Republicans group was disciplined after posting fliers advertising a speech by the author of a book called "Why the Left Hates America." On the fliers the words "Left" and "Hate" were more prominent than the rest of the title. The group was required to reword the flier (at least two copies of which were torn down by administrators), and a disciplinary letter was placed in the group’s file.

Why?

Because its fliers constituted discriminatory "hate speech," according to Gonzaga. FIRE successfully restored the Republicans’ right to post promotional materials after bringing the issue to light, but as FIRE’s director of legal advocacy Greg Lukianoff put it, "It is a dark day when universities in a free society start banning everyday words."

Albright College: "Assault on Academic Freedom to Criticize Administration."

Bucks County Community College: "Ideological Loyalty Oath for Professors."

Central Michigan University: "Abridgement of Freedom to Display Patriotic Symbols."

College of William and Mary: "Suppression of Affirmative Action Bake Sale."

Tufts University: "Refusal to Allow Evangelical Christian Club to Reject Homosexual Leadership."

San Diego State University: "Censorship of Pro-American Student Speech."

Unfortunately, the list goes on.

And on.

I encourage readers to peruse FIRE’s archives in order to note this personally. In some cases even faculty members, while often persecuted themselves by administration, have become persecutors.

A University of South Carolina women’s studies professor required students do the following in order to do well in her class: "acknowledge that racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, and other institutionalized forms of oppression exist" and "agree to combat actively the myths and stereotypes about our own groups and other groups."

An instructor at Citrus College required his students to write anti-war letters to President Bush, penalizing students who refused by lowering their grades.

While it is true that the majority of FIRE’s case files deal with the free-speech squelching effects of oppression motivated by political correctness, the larger problem is that oppression occurs at all, not that it occurs to one political/ideological "side" or another in any given case.

Muslim student associations have been discriminated against, the anti-war speech has been suppressed, NAACP chapters have been denied recognition; all of this equally as unacceptable as mandatory diversity training and the denial of rights to Christian student groups.

It’s all erosive to the maintenance of a free society, and it’s all got to go.

Download file "5"

Schools: Gonzaga University Central Michigan University San Diego State University The College of William and Mary Albright College Tufts University University of Colorado at Boulder