FIRE Has Never Been ‘Sheepish’ on the Danger of Confusing Free Speech with Indoctrination

By on March 2, 2005

I wanted to add to David’s post about the article from The Nation.

The author wrote:

New, well-funded organizations like the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) specifically urge universities to monitor and divest themselves of those engaged in “rank political indoctrination”—which even they rather sheepishly acknowledge is an awfully thin line away from political speech.

We have been sheepish in acknowledging the care you have to use to distinguish between political speech and indoctrination? Really? Does testifying before the United States Senate to warn about the dangers of confusing “indoctrination” with political speech count as being “sheepish”? I did exactly that in my October 30, 2003, Senate testimony:

History shows that efforts to control either speech or the content of speech almost always result in abuse, leading to the suppression of unpopular ideas or opinions. Any bill that would ban “indoctrination” on campus, for example, or that would promise “unbiased teaching,” could too easily result in a nightmare of abuse and suppression as different sides fight to label the other sides’ arguments as “indoctrination” and their own as simply “truth.” The best way for Congress to ensure intellectual diversity on campus is simply to work to remove the often unlawful restrictions on speech that currently exist. When students and faculty do not have to fear punishment for expressing their deeply held beliefs—no matter how outrageous or unpopular—greater intellectual diversity will result.

We have hardly been “sheepish” in opposing the abuse of “indoctrination” accusations to punish political speech, and we have spent a great deal of time on this blog discussing what the parameters of “indoctrination” should be. (see my discussion of this topic and David’s) We all agree that the idea of indoctrination can and has been abused at times in attempts to punish political speech.

But just because the term “indoctrination” can be abused doesn’t mean that students have no recourse when official power is being used to make them say or believe things that they do not agree with. As I wrote in my recent post:

Many FIRE cases involve violations of right to conscience. Our recent case at Le Moyne College, in which a student was expelled because he would not toe the line of the college’s education department, involves a violation of the right to conscience. The University of South Carolina case in which students were given a list of “assumptions” they had to make when arguing in a mandatory class or be graded down was a violation of conscience. Our first Citrus College case involved an abuse of the right of conscience. In that case a professor offered extra credit only to students who wrote anti-war letters to President Bush, which she would then have mailed to the president. Professors should not use grades to coerce students into advocating positions they disagree with. Our speech codes litigation against Shippensburg University likewise involved a violation of the right to conscience because the university had promulgated rules requiring students to display a “commitment to racial tolerance, cultural diversity, and social justice…in their attitudes and behaviors” under threat of official punishment. The state has no business telling us what our “attitudes” must be. And the list goes on and on.

I certainly hope the author wouldn’t think that any of these cases represent acceptable exercises of free speech, as opposed to abuses of power akin to “rank political indoctrination.” I think the author would understand the need to protect free speech and the right to private conscience quite quickly if West Virginia v. Barnette were suddenly overturned and citizens everywhere could be forced to say oaths against their will.

Yes, defining what violations of conscience are is tricky, but just because it is tricky doesn’t mean you can’t have freedom of conscience and free speech at the same time. I believe FIRE is up to the challenge of parsing through these (often not-so-fine) distinctions.

Schools: Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania Le Moyne College