FIRE’s Work Lauded in Newspapers Nationwide

By on December 12, 2005

It’s been a good couple of days for Justice Brandeis’ maxim that “sunlight is the best disinfectant.” Thanks to articles in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and The Chronicle of Higher Education, news of FIRE’s efforts to disinfect the swamps of repression currently passing for American universities is reaching an ever-increasing number of people.
 
On Sunday, The New York Times covered our recent victory at William Paterson University. (Read it at the Times website if you are a TimesSelect subscriber.) The article by Peter Applebome ran on the front page of the Metro section and thoroughly denounced William Paterson’s scandalous conduct. Here is a snippet:

[Jihad] Daniel, who repairs printers at William Paterson University and also takes courses toward a master’s degree there, was reading his e-mail before work on March 8 when he came upon a message sent in connection with Women’s History Month announcing the showing of a film, “Ruthie and Connie: Every Room in the House.”
 
Mr. Daniel, 63, who has been a Muslim since the 1970’s, had no interest in the film. He believes his religion condemns homosexuality. So following the instructions, he sent a reply to the e-mail address of Arlene Holpp Scala, chairwoman of the department of women’s studies.
 
“Do not send me any mail about ‘Connie and Sally’ and ‘Adam and Steve.’ These are perversions,” he wrote. “The absence of God in higher education brings on confusion. That is why in these classes the Creator of the heavens and the earth is never mentioned.”

As we’ve discussed repeatedly here, those words earned Daniel a “sexual harassment” conviction. And as Applebome points out, he “had an otherwise spotless record in 15 years at the university and gave no other reason to be perceived as a threat.” Here is how Applebome describes Daniel’s reaction to such lunacy:

“I said, ‘You’re kidding me, aren’t you?’” he said. “I didn’t harass anyone. I didn’t threaten anyone. I said, ‘Don’t send me any more e-mails because I’m a religious person and God does not condone that kind of behavior.’”

And then came the next phase in the battle:

At that point Mr. Daniel might have packed it in, but he figured a letter in his file saying he was guilty of harassing behavior was no small price to pay. And he had been taking courses in media communications and decided that what he had learned about the First Amendment applied to him as much as it did to the founding fathers. Yes, he was just the guy who fixed the printers, but he didn’t see how he had done anything wrong.
 
He decided to appeal and found an ally in the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which has found no shortage of free-speech cases on college campuses.

Yeah, that’s for sure. As Applebome also writes, the letter in question was finally removed from Daniel’s file following a media firestorm. He concludes:

This stuff never seems to go away on college campuses, but Mr. Daniel said he just wanted to go back to attending class and fixing printers. “This was not about having my 15 minutes of fame,” he said. “I’m not ego-tripping. I just thought from the start this whole thing was ludicrous.”

Very true. “This stuff” (campus censorship) is rampant, and it applies to all political viewpoints. For proof, consult Cathy Young’s op-ed in today’s Boston Globe. Young, noting “several recent incidents in which colleges penalized faculty and students for expressing antiwar views,” writes the following about FIRE’s case at George Mason University:

In September at George Mason University in Virginia, a student and Air Force veteran, Tariq Khan, stood near a military recruiters’ table on campus with a “Recruiters lie” sign taped to his chest and handed out leaflets. Another student assaulted him and took away his sign; the campus police then arrested Khan for violating a university policy that bans distribution of leaflets without prior approval from administrators. Charges were eventually dropped after Khan’s case was taken up by the American Civil Liberties Union and by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
 
FIRE, co-founded by Boston civil rights attorney Harvey Silverglate and University of Pennsylvania professor [Alan Charles] Kors, is a nonpartisan organization that champions free expression on college campuses. When the organization was launched in 1998, its main focus was “political correctness” from the left—attempts to curtail speech regarded as racist, sexist, or otherwise injurious to diversity. Such censorship still endures. But alongside it, FIRE is seeing more cases in which speech is suppressed by political correctness on the right.

To be clear, FIRE was founded in 1999 to combat campus censorship in general, not that which comes from any particular side of the ideological spectrum. And we have always defended those who needed us on an equal-opportunity basis—see our cases at the University of New Mexico, Saint Xavier University, and the University of Colorado for just a few examples. If anything, the current wave of repression against anti-war voices doesn’t seem new; we certainly saw many examples of that in the wake of September 11. But whether the wave is old or new, the pattern of Orwellian conduct on the part of universities definitely exists, and as Young points out, FIRE is fighting it. And we couldn’t agree more with the sentiments in her conclusion:

Back in 1992, civil libertarian Nat Hentoff wrote a book titled, “Free Speech for Me—But Not for Thee.” Unfortunately, that sums up the typical approach on the right and the left. It’s not always easy to defend freedom of speech when the speech deeply offends you. But that’s the true test of commitment to liberty.

Finally, several FIRE cases are featured in the current issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education. A superb article there by Robin Wilson explores education programs’ frequent abuses of “dispositions” evaluations in order to punish unpopular viewpoints. As Wilson correctly points out:

The idea of evaluating prospective teachers based on their “professional dispositions” has been around for at least two decades. But it became much more important in 2002, when the organization that accredits education schools changed its focus. It decided that examining a school’s curriculum and the kind of educational experiences it offered was not enough to make sure schools turned out graduates who were ready for the classroom.
 
“We reoriented our system so that we could primarily make accreditation decisions on data revealing how much candidates had the knowledge and skills required to teach,” says Arthur E. Wise, president of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education. “This was a very big change.”
 
In the 2002 edition of its guidebook on professional standards, the accreditor detailed the kind of learning it expects, including the kind of professional dispositions it believes students need. Dispositions, the booklet says, are the “values, commitments, and professional ethics that influence behaviors toward students, families, colleagues, and communities.” They “are guided by beliefs and attitudes related to values such as caring, fairness, honesty, responsibility, and social justice.”
 
It is the term “social justice,” and the many ways in which education schools have defined it, that seems to have sparked most of the complaints.

Conflicts over different interpretations of words like “social justice” and “diversity” are what sparked FIRE cases at Brooklyn College, Washington State University, and Le Moyne College—all of which Wilson mentions.

Schools: Washington State University George Mason University Le Moyne College Brooklyn College, City University of New York William Paterson University Saint Xavier University University of New Mexico University of Colorado at Boulder