BROOKLYN, N.Y., September 8, 2005—In a direct attack on academic freedom and free speech, the Brooklyn College School of Education (SOE) is seeking to silence one of its most prominent critics, history professor K. C. Johnson. After publicly criticizing perceived indoctrination and viewpoint discrimination by members of the Brooklyn College faculty, Johnson is facing a possible investigation by a Brooklyn College “Integrity Committee” for his constitutionally protected speech.
Johnson has criticized the SOE’s use of “dispositions” theory, which holds that professors should evaluate students’ commitment to “social justice” along with academic achievement. On June 7, officials from the college’s faculty union insinuated that Johnson’s exercise of his First Amendment rights had threatened “academic freedom.” Shortly thereafter, he received an official letter signed by dozens of education professors demanding that he cease his “attacks” on the SOE.
“Brooklyn College’s conduct shows an incredible misunderstanding of academic freedom,” remarked David French, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which has written to the college on Johnson’s behalf. “When Professor Johnson dared to question Brooklyn College’s official orthodoxy, his colleagues confused his criticism with ‘censorship.’ Now he may be facing an investigation for exercising his right to dissent.”
Johnson’s latest trouble began on May 23, when he published an article in Inside Higher Ed expressing reservations about the national trend toward using “dispositions” theory, which he believes applies an ideological litmus test to prospective public school teachers. A few days later, Johnson was quoted in a similar article in the New York Sun. Both pieces mentioned advisees of Johnson who thought they had been penalized by SOE professors for their views.
In response to Johnson’s criticisms, the faculty union’s Professional Staff Congress held an “emergency academic freedom” meeting on June 7, where officials insinuated that the Faculty Council’s “Integrity Committee” would investigate him. Then, on June 20, a letter on SOE letterhead was sent to Johnson, Brooklyn College President Christoph M. Kimmich, City University of New York (CUNY) Chancellor Matthew Goldstein, every Brooklyn College department chair, and every member of the CUNY Board of Trustees. The letter opened by claiming to respect Johnson’s freedom of speech, but quickly demanded that he stop his “attacks” on a colleague, on the SOE, and on the use of “dispositions”—that is, that he give up his right to comment on an issue of public concern.
Johnson defended his rights and clarified some misstatements of fact in the SOE letter in a July 29 reply, but has received no response from the administration or Faculty Council. He has not received any official notification of the possible investigation into his views.
Brooklyn College’s actions are even more troubling given the school’s poor track record on academic freedom. Brooklyn College suspended its student government last year for passing a resolution in favor of a bill promoting student and faculty rights, only backing down when FIRE intervened. And in 2002, the college conducted a secret investigation of Professor Johnson’s viewpoint during a tenure dispute.
FIRE wrote President Kimmich on August 18, asking him to recognize Johnson’s free speech rights; to inform Johnson if there is an investigation into his views or expression; and if there is such an investigation, to end it. President Kimmich has so far ignored FIRE’s request for a response, leaving the status of Johnson’s First Amendment rights open to question.
“Brooklyn College is no stranger to secret investigations. If, as threatened, K. C. Johnson is under investigation for criticizing the college, this investigation must cease. Few forms of speech are more clearly protected than a professor’s right to criticize pedagogical standards he or she may find unsound or unfair,” stated FIRE Director of Legal and Public Advocacy Greg Lukianoff. “Brooklyn College must confirm that it tolerates dissent, that it is not conducting another secret investigation of one of its own professors, and that it accepts free speech and academic freedom—even when that dissent shines a light on the college’s own abuses.”
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at thefire.org.
David French, President, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org