How the AHA Lost Its Way

By March 15, 2006

A great column in the American Historical Association’s (AHA’s) monthly Perspectives newsletter asks, “Has the AHA turned its back on academic freedom?” Written by history professors David Beito, Ralph E. Luker, and Robert K. C. Johnson, the article, entitled “The AHA’s Double Standard on Academic Freedom,” discusses the history of the academic freedom proposal by those three professors that was rejected by the AHA at its January meeting here in Philadelphia. (I blogged about this two months ago.)

Yes, I realize that this sounds like dry stuff. But Beito, Luker, and Johnson’s article is an important read because it reveals how the AHA, an organization that wields a great deal of influence on how and what students are taught in colleges and universities, seems to have lost its way when it comes to the foundation of scholarly work—freedom of academic inquiry. Beito, Luker, and Johnson sought to add an amendment condemning speech codes to a resolution opposing David Horowitz’s “Academic Bill of Rights” (ABOR).

…[W]e began our campaign to sway the AHA by making a principled private appeal to the sponsors of the anti-ABOR resolution. We urged them to add a friendly amendment condemning speech codes that violate academic freedom. We expected to be rebuffed but retained some hope…. If HAW [the sponsors of the resolution] and AHA remained silent on speech codes, we also warned, the result would be to give David Horowitz an unintended victory by allowing him to triumphantly charge hypocrisy and selectivity.

The sponsors of HAW’s resolution were not buying our arguments. They refused to compromise. Meanwhile, Horowitz began to criticize our resolution for encouraging “complete anarchy” on campus and giving aid and comfort to Ward Churchill and others on the left who try to indoctrinate. Almost everything was going according to expectation. We were smoking out critics on both the left and the right and, to a limited extent, were making them confront uncomfortable truths. Also, FIRE, the most consistent organizational champion of academic freedom today, was highly supportive of our cause and provided valuable publicity. The three of us drafted a substitute resolution, which opposed “passage of the Academic and Student Bills of Rights, the use of speech codes to restrict academic freedom, and all similar attempts to limit free and open discourse on campus.” Contrary to what some of our critics later said, the substitute did not oppose all speech codes. It only condemned those that restrict academic freedom.

Just prior to the final showdown, we pushed our substitute resolution at HAW’s meeting, which was also held during the AHA annual meeting. We lost overwhelmingly….

For more information on this lamentable case, read the whole thing. Beito, Luker, and Johnson should be commended by all friends of liberty for their principled stand against speech codes and for academic freedom.