Former FIRE Interns Criticize Ubiquitous Censorship at Their Universities

By September 4, 2009

Two of this summer’s FIRE interns have started the year with a bang. Today, both published damning indictments of the state of free speech in higher education in general, and their own universities in particular. First, former FIRE intern John Cetta has an excellent article in The D.C. Writeup on free speech in higher education, titled "A Dark Time for the Academy, Indeed." Beginning with Yale University Press’s shameful refusal to print the Danish Mohammed cartoons in a scholarly book about the cartoon controversy and going on to demonstrate how other institutions are engaged in the same degree of censorship, John writes,

Yale is not alone in its attack on academic liberty; its peer institutions have likewise abandoned such basic freedoms. At Cornell University, this ill-conceived mentality has become so pervasive that it has trickled down into the student body itself. Not only do administrators attempt to censor expression whose "content" they disfavor, but also students themselves latch onto the censorial bandwagon, seeking to proscribe politically unfavorable viewpoints from the campus dialogue. For example, as I have previously discussed, a Cornell administrator removed a student group’s university-approved display because of its "content," and the Student Assembly (SA) has tried to punish and de-fund a conservative campus publication for printing satire that the SA found politically incorrect.

Such tyranny exists writ-large in the academy. Currently, a disturbing 74% of universities maintain policies that "clearly restrict speech" on their campus. FIRE’s President Greg Lukianoff remonstrates the "absurd" and "tenacious" speech codes that are "everywhere" at colleges today. But how have we reached this sad state of affairs, where universities abandon the very principles upon which they [rely]?

He goes on to discuss how the idea of "victimism" has taken hold in the academy and been given precedence over traditional concepts of academic freedom and free speech.

Tracing the history of this new tenet, which has come to rival and even trump basic notions of free debate and inquiry, brings us back again to the actions of students at Cornell. The systemic discrimination and true harassment tackled by the civil rights movement caused activists, in their well-intentioned fervor, to create a culture of "victimism," which "involves elevating social justice claims and identity politics over the principles and practices of free inquiry and intellectual conscience." At Cornell, the tension between this "victimism" and academic integrity boiled over in April 1969, when activists, who later armed themselves, staged a takeover of the student union. According to Professor Donald Downs, the university’s acquiescence to the coercion was a harbinger of things to come. By refusing to stand by the principles of the university, Cornell took the first steps towards where it, and higher education generally, are today.

Former FIRE intern Daniel Ortner also has an excellent op-ed today. Writing in The Brandeis Hoot, Daniel blasts the Brandeis University administration for bullying students, faculty, and even donors. Daniel hones in on FIRE’s case involving Professor Donald Hindley, which landed Brandeis on FIRE’s Red Alert list.

In the Hindley case, the administration violated its own stated policy and ignored its obligations to Brandeis students as well as Brandeis faculty. A major problem in the controversy was that students in Hindley’s classes were not allowed to testify. The administration might even have relied on indirect or even fabricated accounts of students taking offense, for Hindley was never given any written account of what he allegedly said that had gotten him in trouble.

The Faculty Senate’s criticism of the administration’s actions was ignored, for its official findings that the charges were both wrongheaded and handled badly was declared to be merely the statement of an advisory committee without any real voice. This led to a standoff between faculty and the administration and a near two-year shutdown in the hearing of grievances by the Committee on Faculty Rights and Responsibilities.

Prof. Richard Gaskins (AMST), the Faculty Chair at the time the Hindley incident broke, deserves to be commended in particular for his vigilance on behalf of faculty rights and prerogatives. Unfortunately, the administration has yet to admit any fault in the Hindley case and has failed to articulate a clear policy for the investigation of incidents of harassment or shown any inclination to follow its stated policy.

At the end of last semester, finally a joint statement was issued by the faculty and the administration affirming the vital role of the Faculty Senate in all proceedings against faculty. Such tentative steps toward a balance of power, while promising, are yet incomplete.

Do read both articles in their entirety. Both are articulate accounts of the rampant censorship plaguing higher education today. It is encouraging to see former FIRE interns zealously take on universities engaged in hypocritical and destructive censorship. I only hope that the universities wisely pay attention.