FIRE Letter to Penn State University President Graham Spanier, October 24, 2001

By on October 24, 2001

October 24, 2001

Graham B. Spanier

President

Pennsylvania State University

University Park, PA 16802

Re: Professor Stephen G. Simpson

Dear President Spanier:

As you know, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE)
unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists,
and public intellectuals across the political and ideological spectrum
on behalf of liberty, legal equality, freedom of expression, and, in
the case of Professor Stephen G. Simpson, free speech and academic
freedom on America’s college campuses. Our web page, www.thefire.org,
will give you a greater sense of our identity and of our activities.

We were deeply impressed by the assistance that you rendered
liberty and academic freedom in the case of both the Sex Faire and the
YAF chapter last year. Consistency on these matters has been rare,
indeed, in the academic world, and the current times teach us yet more
forcefully of the urgency of such consistency. It is with confidence,
then, that we address ourselves again to your principled leadership and
understanding.

We are profoundly alarmed by the threat to free speech and
academic freedom posed by the decision of the Vice Provost for Academic
Affairs to single out Professor Simpson’s website for its content, in
this specific case, support of the “war on terrorism.” It is liberty,
of course, not specific viewpoint that concerns us, and we are
defending faculty at other institutions who have been targeted for
their opposition to that national policy. In light of the current
crisis, it is crucially important, now more than ever, that we affirm
our cherished Constitution and ideals and not abandon them in order to
suppress views that University administrators find offensive.

FIRE is in possession of a copy of an e-mail of September 21
from Robert Secor, the Vice Provost for Academic Affairs, to Professor
Simpson. The Vice Provost criticized Professor Simpson’s website for
having endorsed the position of Leonard Peikoff, who supports an
aggressive military campaign against the countries that support
terrorism. The Vice Provost took the extraordinary step of condemning
Professor Simpson’s statement of his views on American policy, which
constitutes, of course, core political speech in its purest form, for
being “insensitive” and “intimidating” to students.

As you know full well, Pennsylvania State University is a public
university and therefore has an overarching legal obligation, in
addition to its moral obligation, to ensure the First Amendment rights
of its faculty. If this were a simple exchange among colleagues, we
would be unconcerned by and, in fact, supportive of the frank exchange.
However, coming from the top tier of the University administration and
from a position that is charged with the preservation of academic
freedom and the free exchange of ideas, the message that this action
sends is disturbing. In particular, the statement that his website is
“insensitive” and “intimidating” threatens possible future action
through the University’s code of conduct. Even if no formal retaliation
ever takes place, the mere threat of action based on opinion,
viewpoint, and political content promotes self-censorship among faculty
and students alike, chilling both protected speech and academic
freedom. This, of course, runs completely contrary to the role and
constitutional obligations of the Vice Provost for Academic Affairs.

What is all the more extraordinary is the remarkable hostility towards a specific
viewpoint demonstrated by the Vice Provost’s actions. Customarily, the administration
does not take a position on a professor’s website or on his or her expression
of core political beliefs. By singling out one website that supports the war,
while passing over in silence numerous other websites that express views that
might well be “extreme” and “insensitive” in the eyes of others, the Vice
Provost demonstrates that only certain views are unthreatened at Pennsylvania
State University. As the Supreme Court ruled in the landmark case of West Virginia
Board of Education v. Barnette (1943): “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional
constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall
be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion
or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith [in it].” The Court
concluded that “the purpose of the First Amendment to our Constitution” was
precisely to protect “from all official control” the domain that was “the sphere
of intellect and spirit.” The remarkable double standard that the University
has shown here, if allowed to stand, would not speak well of its respect for
these high ideals and would open the door for administrators to decide what
constitutes an “acceptable political belief.” The Vice Provost for Academic
Affairs may not threaten protected speech that the sons, daughter, brothers,
and sisters of our soldiers might find offensive or hostile, even when these
persons are students at Penn State; equally, he may not threaten the protected
speech of those with whom he has political disagreements under such unconstitutional
criteria.

Accordingly, FIRE requests you and your administration affirm to
Professor Simpson that his opinions are fully protected under the First
Amendment and the canons of academic freedom. Normally, we ask an
institution to restate its commitment to the ideals of robust debate
and discussion, which, of course, requires the unthreatened expression
of all viewpoints. Our confidence in your leadership leads us here to
ask only that you remind your administration, and the campus, of the
principles that you already have articulated and reiterated on numerous
occasions.

Despite those articulations and reiterations, it is obvious,
alas, that there still are administrators at Pennsylvania State
University who do not understand that singling out certain viewpoints
for official disfavor and threat will not only chill the speech of your
faculty and students, but will also result in a chilling effect across
education as a whole. A university in which students and faculty have
any fear of reprisal for discussing controversial topics is one that is
rendered impotent to address society’s most crucial issues.

FIRE hopes we are able to resolve this dispute discreetly and
amicably. However, FIRE will stay with this case with persistence and
resolution. We are categorically committed to using all of our media
and legal resources to support Professor Stephen Simpson and to see
this process to a just and moral conclusion. Please spare Pennsylvania
State University the embarrassment of fighting against the Bill of
Rights and against the canons of academic freedom, by both of which it
is legally and morally bound. As we all have learned immeasurably in
these recent times, a free society is a precious thing, not to be
abandoned.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,

 

Alan Charles Kors

President

cc: Robert Secor, Vice-Provost for Academic Affairs

Wendell V. Courtney, General Counsel

Rodney Erickson, Provost and Executive Vice President

Schools: Pennsylvania State University – University Park