Free Speech Debate Spurs Lots of Words

February 27, 2005

When Hamilton College canceled a Colorado professor’s appearance this month because of security concerns, it was only the latest in a recent string of free speech controversies at local campuses.

Hamilton, the State University College at Oswego, Wells College and LeMoyne College have all become embroiled in the last year or so in what people should be allowed to say and when. It’s not just a local issue, said David French, president of Foundation for Individual Rights in Education in Philadelphia (FIRE).

“The specific problems you’re running into are being replicated on a mass scale across the country,” French said. “There is a massive problem with respect to basic free speech rights in colleges.”

Since December 2003, Central New York campuses have played host to a variety of free speech issues:

More than half the speech by Oswego State’s commencement speaker was drowned out by booing in May after he criticized the Bush administration’s handling of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Hamilton College administrators canceled Ward Churchill’s visit this month after a national storm of protest and what college officials called “credible death threats.” That followed a controversy involving a former radical who had been hired to teach a half-credit class, but later withdrew.

LeMoyne College rejected a student for writing in an essay that he favored corporal punishment and didn’t favor multicultural learning.

The student association at Wells College in Aurora, Cayuga County, denied recognition in December 2003 to the Republican Club as an official campus group.

Some free-speech advocates say colleges are shirking their responsibility to open their campuses to all points of view. Others say colleges favor liberal points of view over conservative ones.

The local cases haven’t all had a liberal bias, however. The Oswego State speaker, Theodore C. Sorensen, an aide to President Kennedy, was booed for criticizing Republican George W. Bush, and Churchill’s far-left views were blasted by conservatives on and off the Hamilton campus. In addition, former radical Susan Rosenberg’s appointment to teach a half-credit class at Hamilton received so much criticism that she withdrew.

The issue revolves around two similar concepts: academic freedom and freedom of speech.

“The general idea behind academic freedom is that an education requires an unfettered pursuit of the truth, and that faculty members need to pursue ideas in their research and teaching regardless of the political and social consequences of those ideas,” said Philip Klinkner, a government professor at Hamilton College.

Free speech is somewhat different. The First Amendment gives Americans the right to express opinions, even unpopular ones, without government interference. But private colleges like Hamilton and LeMoyne also have a right to invite or not invite certain speakers whose views the college finds unacceptable.

All too often, according to some groups, that means colleges encourage liberal views over conservative ones.

“We believe that universities are like political parties: Students receive this partisan view of education that doesn’t encourage critical thought,” said Sara Dogan, national campus director of Students for Academic Freedom, a group founded by conservative author David Horowitz. “Students have to go to incredible lengths to get conservative speakers on campus, but liberal speakers are invited as a matter of course.”

The issue is different depending on whether the school is public or private, and whether, like LeMoyne, it is a religious institution.

“We do exempt religious schools,” Dogan said. “But in LeMoyne’s case, it seems like (what) the student is arguing in his paper isn’t opposed to Catholicism or the anything the college stood for.”

Some groups, like the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, say schools are often hypocritical, saying they believe in free speech while muzzling students with restrictive “speech codes.”

Hamilton is one of them, said FIRE’s French.

“On the one hand, it seems to be a free-speech kind of place because they’ll hire people like Rosenberg to teach and then Churchill to speak, and wrap themselves in free speech,” French said. On the other hand, he said, the college has a speech code that limits what students can say about gays, women and blacks.

College spokeswoman Asena Jackson said Hamilton does not have a speech code. But FIRE’s Web site notes that the college’s student handbook prohibits speech that “threatens, insults, demeans or abuses a person” because of race, gender or sexual orientation, if that speech creates an “intimidating, hostile or offensive working, educational or social environment.”

The incident involving Oswego State’s speaker in May is a murky freedom-of-speech issue, French said. During the graduation ceremony, the crowd booed lawyer Sorensen so long and so loudly that half his speech was drowned out.

“No speaker has the right to a positive reception. Booing, if done appropriately, is an exchange of ideas,” French said. “If done wrong, it crosses the line from protesting to what we call a “hecklers’ veto.”‘

Schools: Le Moyne College University of Colorado at Boulder Cases: University of Colorado at Boulder: Investigation of Professor for Controversial Essay Le Moyne College: Dismissal of Student for Dissenting Views