Censorship at Brandeis, again

By on January 24, 2008

A new battle has commenced in the war over suppression of free speech and due process at Brandeis, the institution named (ironically and inappropriately, it would seem) after the late Supreme Court Justice and champion of individual liberty.

As my colleague Wendy Kaminer wrote in this space on Wednesday, the school opened an investigation into Professor Donald Hindley, a 40-year veteran of the Politics Department, last October after two students complained about comments he made in class. No one can say for sure what Hindley is accused of saying, however, because to this day the university’s provost has not told him, or his attorney Andrew Good (a partner in the law firm of Good & Cormier, with which I’m associated in an “of counsel” capacity), in writing, despite numerous requests, the specific words he was accused of having uttered-a maneuver right out of Kafka’s The Trial.

The offended students anonymously told the student newspaper that their complaint centered on Hindley’s use of the word “wetback” in class. Hindley recalls, and other students in the class have confirmed, that he commented that when impoverished Mexicans come across the U.S. border into what used to be Mexico, they get called, pejoratively, “wetbacks” (espaldas mojadas in Spanish), referring to their crossing the Rio Grande River. Hindley went on to say that when he went to Los Angeles many years ago, there was absolutely nothing pejorative in the term. Only more recently did it pick up a negative connotation.

In other words, a professor of Latin American studies, teaching a course on the subject of the politics of Mexico, gave the class an explanation of the origins of what is now considered a pejorative term for Mexican immigrants, and it was deemed offensive by two uninformed students.

What is worse, however, is Brandeis refusal to grant this long-time professor any semblance of due process. After a three-week investigation (that Hindley had not been informed of at the time), Provost Marty Krauss told Hindley that he had been found guilty of violating the campus’s harassment clause. A monitor would be placed in his classroom, he was told, and he would need to attend racial sensitivity training sessions. Hindley has never been granted an opportunity to appeal this summarily-inflicted punishment, and pleas from other students to testify favorably toward the professor were ignored. Two separate opinions from the Faculty Committee for Rights and Responsibilities that sharply criticized Krauss’ handling of the complaints were likewise ignored by her.

When the battle heated up, with the intervention not only of legal counsel, but also of The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) Brandeis’ administrators suddenly closed the case, effectively retreating and then, bizarrely, declaring victory. (Further disclosure: I’m a co-founder, and current Chairman of the Board of Directors, of FIRE.)

But it ain’t over; it’s just heating up. The higher education press has gotten wind of the absurd case, and, as Justice Brandeis sagely observed, “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” In their bunkers, Brandeis’ administrators likely cannot stay silent for long, especially since alumni, donors, and perhaps even members of the Board of Trustees are bound to get wind of the university’s assault not only on academic freedom and due process, but also on reason itself.

But for now, Brandeis administrators persist in refusing to respond to FIRE’s letter and to news media inquiries. Justice Brandeis must be turning over in his grave.

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Schools: Brandeis University