Columbia Belatedly Embraces Free Speech, But for Whom?

November 8, 2001

NEW YORK, NY—With breathtaking hypocrisy, the Columbia University Senate passed a resolution in support of freedom of speech. After decades of watching Columbia trash and neglect free speech, legal equality, and all notions of individual rights and responsibilities, the Senate suddenly asserts itself, alarmed only about alleged patriotic threats to freedom of expression.

The resolution claimed that, in the current climate, “some student members of the Columbia community have felt pressure to curtail their opinions of the national response to the September 11 attacks.” In response, the University Senate voted forty-six to none (with one abstention) to “reaffirm open discourse as a prime value in our community and encourage diverse participation in it.”

Alan Charles Kors, president of FIRE, said, “Although they named no patriotic threat to freedom of speech at Columbia—they could not—now they choose to pay lip service to open debate. Where have they been?”

Kors asked, “Where was the Columbia University Senate when administrators barred attendees at a conference on affirmative action—including columnist John Leo and author Dinesh D’Souza—from holding their scheduled event on campus?” In November 1998, hundreds of protesters showed up at the site of the conference denouncing the first day’s speaker, Ward Connerly, as a “bigot” and “Uncle Tom.” Mr. Connerly is black. Columbia told the conservative group that organized the educational gathering that circumstances had “changed.” The conference was then denied the use of campus facilities. The Columbia University Senate said nothing then about the “prime value” of debate, let alone of dissent as essential to a vibrant or creative community.

“Where was the Senate last year, when students, faculty, and the dean of the Law School chilled the free speech rights of Professor George Fletcher?” Kors asked. Fletcher, a renowned theorist in criminal law, posed an exam question, drawn from real case law, in which a female victim expressed gratitude to a male assailant for inducing an abortion that she could not obtain from a medical facility. Law School Dean David Leebron investigated Fletcher for angering a group of female activists and creating a “hostile environment” for women. Despite Columbia’s own faculty guidelines and contractual obligations to academic freedom, the administration informed Fletcher that his exam was possibly “unlawful.”

The University Senate’s refusal to defend Fletcher or conservative critics of affirmative action reveals their current resolution to be partisan currency, valid for political friends but unavailable to political dissenters. Indeed, their refusal to defend academic freedom where it truly matters, in the classrooms of Columbia’s own campus, reveal their striking bad faith and double standards.

If Columbia’s University Senate is serious about liberty-which it is not-it should begin by apologizing to the nation for Columbia’s prior and ongoing offenses against individual rights. Let them condemn what occurred on their own watch. Then one might take them seriously as a body concerned with everyone’s freedom. While they are at it, let them rediscover due process also and pass a resolution condemning Columbia’s own Sexual Misconduct Policy, a Star Chamber where an accusation is the equivalent of a conviction, and where the accused is stripped of the most essential rights to fundamental fairness.

“Colleges and universities indeed must be protected in their freedom, despite themselves, but they also must be held accountable for their betrayal of the essential principles of American liberty and justice,” said Kors. “FIRE welcomes all affirmations of the value of free speech,” he noted, “but this principle must stand for all times, and for all seasons-not just when it is expedient.”

FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, freedom of expression, due process, and the rights of conscience on our nation’s campuses. FIRE’s website is www.thefire.org.

Contact:

Thor L. Halvorssen, FIRE: 215-717-3473; fire@thefire.org

George Rupp, President of Columbia University: (212) 854-2825; rupp@columbia.edu

Rohit Aggarwala, Chair, University Senate Committee on Student Affairs: rta4@Columbia.edu

Jonathan Cole, Provost of Columbia University: (212) 854-2403; jrc5@columbia.edu

Tom Mathewson, Manager, Columbia University Secretariat: (212) 854-6836; tmm2@columbia.edu

Howard Jacobson, Deputy General Counsel of Columbia University: (212) 854-5583; haj@gc.columbia.edu

Professor Paul Duby: (212) 854-2928; pfd1@columbia.edu

Schools: Columbia University Cases: Columbia University: Violation of Due Process Rights in Sexual Misconduct Policy