Criticism or Censorship?

By on September 8, 2005

In June of this year, the City University of New York at Brooklyn (Brooklyn College) was rocked by a story in the New York Sun reporting on a new method of evaluating education students. That method, called “dispositions,” was designed in part to determine whether students had an appropriate commitment to “social justice.” Students who were not sufficiently committed to the university’s politicized vision of social justice could find that their education degrees—and future teaching careers—were in jeopardy.

The “dispositions” theory plainly violates the Supreme Court’s famous admonition that the government cannot “prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion.” Simply put, it is not for the government to decide which of its citizens have the appropriate commitment to favored political ideologies.

Dispositions would have remained where so many repressive academic practices stay—out of the public eye—but for the courageous efforts of K. C. Johnson, a Brooklyn College professor who rejects coercion and thought reform in education. Professor Johnson had taken up the case of two students who complained about a professor who taught that standard English was the “oppressor’s language” and instead expressed a preference for Ebonics. She allegedly would not permit dissenting students to speak in the classroom, and—in the week before the presidential election—required students to attend a classroom screening of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. Rather than dealing with the merits of the students’ complaints, the education department apparently retaliated, first by suggesting that the students could be punished under the “dispositions” theory, then by pursuing (without appropriate due process) trumped-up plagiarism allegations. As for Professor Johnson, virtually the entire Brooklyn College School of Education sent him a letter that concluded, “We must insist that you stop [your] attacks.”

After the Sun broke the story, the Brooklyn College faculty union reacted with fury—not against an evaluation method that violates the fundamental rights of students, but against Johnson’s public criticism. The union actually issued a resolution calling on the university chancellor to condemn the Sun and described the article as an “attempt to intimidate [Brooklyn College’s] faculty.” To be clear, a group of public officials (and public university professors are public officials) was calling on another public official to condemn the free press for investigating a potential violation of the First Amendment.

And now, as FIRE’s press release demonstrates, the Brooklyn College faculty is going even further, calling for a clearly unconstitutional “investigation” into Professor Johnson’s critique. Johnson is no stranger to investigations, having already endured a secret investigation of his viewpoint during his tenure review. Now, the School of Education is asking for an “Integrity Committee” to intervene. Making matters worse, the Brooklyn College administration has refused to publicly protect Johnson’s right to dissent or even to state whether an investigation has, in fact, started.

The incoherent rage that characterizes the reactions of the Brooklyn College School of Education and its faculty union demonstrate just how effective public exposure is and can be. Universities cannot justify in public the things they do in private, and now they are resorting to misleading rhetoric and threats of “investigation” to evade scrutiny. Criticism is not the same thing as censorship, and evidence that the censors cannot bear the critics only encourages FIRE’s efforts to spread sunlight into every dark corner of academia.

Schools: Brooklyn College, City University of New York