AHA Rejects Speech Zones but Refuses to Reject Speech Codes

By January 9, 2007

Historians gathered at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association (AHA) over the weekend voted on several resolutions, one of which was a resolution that would have condemned campus speech codes as a threat to academic freedom. Unfortunately, as it did last year, the resolution condemning speech codes failed. However, a compromise resolution was reached that condemned campus free speech zones—places set aside by administrators for students to engage in free speech. Of course, the practical result of establishing a free speech zone is to make clear that those on the rest of the campus do not enjoy free speech—a ridiculous and illiberal situation for a university in a free society.

Unfortunately, Inside Higher Ed’s coverage of the AHA debate on the free speech resolution reveals how far the organization has to go in understanding the importance of free speech in academia. For instance, Pamela Smith of (surprise, surprise) Columbia University opined that free speech could be “a cover for hate and discrimination.” Presumably, Prof. Smith would find it preferable for those who would engage in hate and discrimination never to have their opinions examined by those who disagree with them. Barbara Ransby of the University of Illinois at Chicago stated that “a climate of civility has to exist” for everyone to feel comfortable speaking—but are professional academics so sensitive that intemperate speech needs to be outlawed?

Supporters of the resolution against speech codes were unimpressed with these arguments. FIRE friend David Beito of the University of Alabama, one of the sponsors of the resolution, said “I think the AHA wimped out” by not passing the resolution. He has more about the debate on the resolution on his group blog at the History News Network. Ralph Luker, another sponsor, said, “I’d be a little hesitant to move the adoption of the Bill of Rights in a body like this.”

Although FIRE is pleased that the AHA did agree to condemn speech zones, it’s disappointing that the organization (once again) simply could not bring itself to vote against speech restrictions that, at public institutions, are simply unlawful. It’s not that the AHA can’t get together on anything—at the same meeting, the AHA passed a resolution against the war in Iraq. In fact, as the article notes, “[n]o one at this year’s meeting defended the war in Iraq,” which suggests that even unanimity on some issues is an achievable goal. Unfortunately, when it comes to academic freedom, a subject where the AHA might actually have some influence, it has once again dropped the ball.