Remembering September 11 and the Freedoms that Make Us Americans

By September 11, 2008

On the seventh anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on our nation, FIRE joins the rest of the country in remembering those who were lost. As we look back on that day, it is important that we also remind ourselves of the importance of the freedoms that make this country what it is, and that we commit ourselves to defending those freedoms when they are threatened.

As those who follow FIRE’s work well know, many, if not most, American colleges and universities restrict freedom as much as they claim to promote it. In fact, in the immediate wake of the 9/11 attacks, many universities responded by threatening students’ and faculty members’ fundamental rights:

  • At Central Michigan University, an administrator told several students to remove various patriotic posters (an American flag, an eagle, and so on) from their dormitory.
  • At the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts, the chair of the department of sociology demanded that a secretary remove an American flag that she had hung in the departmental office.
  • At Johns Hopkins University, after Professor Charles H. Fairbanks said that he would "bet anyone here a Koran" that his analysis of the terrorist attacks was correct, the university demanded a written apology (despite the fact that Fairbanks had already issued a spoken apology) and eliminated his position as director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute. After media pressure, the university reversed its decision (something I doubt would happen today, given the university’s refusal to apologize for its harsh treatment of Justin Park and its defense of its illiberal speech code even in the face of strong public pressure).
  • At Lehigh University, two days after 9/11, an administrator ordered the removal of the American flag from the campus bus. (It was eventually replaced, and the administrator in question apologized).
  • At Penn State, a professor whose web page called for military action as a response to 9/11 was told by an administrator that his comments were "insensitive and perhaps even intimidating." FIRE wrote to Penn State President Graham Spanier, who responded with an unequivocal endorsement of free speech and academic freedom at his institution, but denied that the administrator’s use of the term "intimidating" in any manner chilled the professor’s free speech. Penn State continues to violate its students’ and faculty members’ right to free speech with its unconstitutional "Penn State Principles," which FIRE named its Speech Code of the Month for September 2008.
  • At San Diego State University, international student Zewdalem Kebede overheard several other students celebrating the terrorist attacks. After confronting the students, Kebede was accused by the university of abusive behavior toward the four students. A university judicial officer formally admonished Kebede and warned him that "future incidents [will result in] serious disciplinary sanctions."
  • The University of Massachussetts permitted a student rally to protest any use of force in waging the war against terrorism, but revoked a permit for other students to hold a rally in support of America’s policy towards terrorism. (The students held the rally anyway, and their pamphlets were publicly vandalized).
  • The University of New Mexico punished a professor who joked that "[a]nyone who can bomb the Pentagon has my vote."

Sadly, seven years later, the suppression of free speech on campus continues unabated. For example, last week, FIRE learned that San Francisco State University (SFSU) abruptly suspended its students’ right to hold outdoor protests pending a review of the university’s time, place, and manner policies. Among other things, this suspension would have prohibited SFSU’s College Republicans from holding a 9/11 memorial they had planned for today. Alliance Defense Fund attorney David Hackerwho represented the College Republicans in their successful lawsuit challenging SFSU’s speech codesimmediately wrote to SFSU demanding that the university uphold its students’ First Amendment right to protest and demonstration. Fortunately, the university responded to the letter by retracting the ban on outdoor events, but the fact that SFSU ever thought such a ban was permissible or appropriate in the first place leaves us with serious concerns about the state of free speech there.

As we look back today on the events of September 11, 2001, let’s all commit ourselves anew to appreciating and defending the freedoms that make the United States of America such an incredible country.

Schools: San Francisco State University Cases: San Francisco State University: Speech Code Litigation Project