It was 9:10 am on September 11, 2001 when I landed safely at Philadelphia International Airport. I was visiting from San Francisco to find an apartment in my new city to start my life as director of legal and public advocacy at a young nonprofit, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). As everyone remembers, it was a gorgeous day. I had no idea there was anything amiss until I got into the shuttle to the hotel. I spent most of the rest of that day trying to get in touch with my sister, who had worked in the World Trade Center up until a few months before the attacks. In the panic, I couldn’t remember if she had switched jobs or not. Thankfully she had, but like so many Americans I spent that horrifying day in a fog of fear, grief and despair.
As I began my work defending free speech rights on campus a few weeks later, I was not surprised to see some cases where professors found themselves in trouble after making callous remarks about the attacks. In one famous case a professor in New Mexico joked that “anyone who can blow up the Pentagon has my vote.” Despite apologizing profusely and repeatedly for his insensitivity, and despite the fact that the First Amendment was indeed on his side, Professor Richard Berthold was out of a job within a year.
What was surprising to me, however, was that the Berthold case was the exception rather than the rule on campus. In the aftermath of 9/11, students and professors were far more likely to get in trouble for expressing support for the U.S. and for military action after the attacks than they were for being unpatriotic.
At San Diego State University an international student, Zewdalem Kebede, overheard students talking in Arabic expressing delight about the attacks. When Kebede challenged them, he was accused of engaging in “abusive behavior” and warned that any similar behavior in the future would result in “serious disciplinary sanctions.” At Penn State, a professor who advocated an aggressive military response to the attacks on his webpage received a letter from the vice provost for academic affairs chastising him for engaging in speech that was “insensitive and perhaps even intimidating.” (Keep in mind that engaging in “intimidating” speech was grounds for termination at Penn State at the time.) Meanwhile, at Johns Hopkins, a professor who publicly advocated going after the countries that supported al Qaeda and similar terrorist organizations found himself reprimanded and removed as the director of the university’s Central Asia-Caucasus Institute.
FIRE was involved in fighting most of these and other cases involving students and faculty after 9/11, and most of them ended up with the college reversing course in the face of public disgust. Make no mistake about it, we did not hesitate to defend the free speech rights of students and faculty regardless of what point of view they took on the attacks. But it was truly eye-opening for me to see that most of the attempts to stifle speech on campus in the wake of September 11 were directed at what were normal responses of anger and solidarity that most Americans felt in those days and weeks after the attacks. What is so bizarre about these cases is that the same colleges and universities that present themselves as civilized and tolerant showed such startling myopia and intolerance towards the sadness and outrage of their fellow citizens.
It was just the start of my experiences fighting campus censors — and ten years later, the fight is far from over.