Phi Beta Kappa Can Do Better

By December 2, 2005

Earlier this week, FIRE wrote Phi Beta Kappa a letter encouraging the organization to join the fight against censorship and repression at some of America’s most prestigious colleges and universities. Although FIRE has received no formal response from Phi Beta Kappa, the organization has made several comments to the press indicating that it is not particularly interested in addressing the problem of speech codes at its member institutions. Those comments fall along two lines: first, that Phi Beta Kappa’s decision to reject George Mason University’s application was not based on academic freedom grounds; and second, that Phi Beta Kappa is not in a position to police censorship at its member institutions. I would like to address both of these points in turn.

In an article in the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Badger Herald, Phi Beta Kappa “denied its decision to reject George Mason’s chapter application was influenced only because Michael Moore was not accepted to lecture on campus.” “The society continues to be haunted by accusations that the chapter at George Mason University was declined because of the decision to cancel Michael Moore’s appearance there,” Director of Public Relations Kelly Gerald said. Interestingly, Phi Beta Kappa issued no such denial to the Washington Posts, which reported back in March that Phi Beta Kappa rejected GMU’s application “citing concerns about academic freedom.” Rather, in that article, Phi Beta Kappa secretary John Churchill declined to discuss the decision, “saying that all deliberations regarding schools seeking chapters are confidential.” To support its assertions, the Post quoted several sources from GMU as well as a letter that Phi Beta Kappa sent to GMU expressing concern over the incident. Phi Beta Kappa made no contrary assertions.

Putting the GMU incident aside, moreover, there is ample evidence that Phi Beta Kappa is at least nominally committed to freedom of speech. Its membership selection criteria include “a system of governance that promotes academic freedom and vigor,” and its former executive secretary wrote that “for 225 years we have endeavored to place our chapters only at those American institutions of higher education that share our commitment to freedom of inquiry.”

In the Badger Herald article, secretary John Churchill stated that “Phi Beta Kappa does not [seek] to police and control the activities and policies of institutions where chapters are located.” FIRE has not asked the organization to “police and control” its member institutions but rather to use its influence as a venerable, respected institution to act as an agent for positive change. If Phi Beta Kappa truly seeks to place chapters only at universities “that share our commitment to freedom of inquiry,” why doesn’t it send letters to prospective member institutions expressing concern over repressive, Orwellian speech codes? If Phi Beta Kappa feels strongly about freedom of speech, why doesn’t it use its status to try to influence campus policy?

Towards the end of the Badger Herald article, Churchill said that “[o]bviously, we trust that our presence will be a constructive factor at the local chapters at the colleges and universities.” If Phi Beta Kappa’s commitment to freedom of speech is in name only, however, and is backed by no substantive action, how will its presence be a “constructive factor”? If a university knows that it can practice blatant censorship and still have a Phi Beta Kappa chapter, why would that university change its policies?

So far, Phi Beta Kappa’s response to the FIRE letter seems to imply that undertaking to fight censorship at its member—or prospective member—institutions would be a task on a scale that Phi Beta Kappa is unprepared to undertake. However, Phi Beta Kappa already pays close attention to every university that seeks to have a Phi Beta Kappa chapter—according to the Washington Post, “Phi Beta Kappa uses a rigorous three-year review to select colleges to host new chapters. Institutions seeking to establish a chapter must submit a preliminary application. A handful then are invited to turn in a more detailed report. Phi Beta Kappa officials visit the campus and interview students and professors before making a final judgment.” Is it really so much to ask, then, that Phi Beta Kappa pay attention to easily identifiable censorship issues as part of this process? Or that the organization speak out clearly and strongly against censorship at its member institutions? FIRE doesn’t think it is too much to ask, and we hope that the many individual members of Phi Beta Kappa who support liberty will agree with us and will ask their organization to do better.

Schools: George Mason University