In a blog last week, I explained that the honor society Phi Beta Kappa (PBK) does not support schools like evangelical Wheaton College, which recently fired a professor for converting to Catholicism. I made the assertion that if PBK claims to support academic freedom, it should stand up to its many member institutions that have “immoral or even illegal speech codes.” One reader of The Torch interpreted that blog as my calling Wheaton’s actions immoral. He wrote:
[T]he right of free speech…is not absolute when it comes to employment at a PRIVATE university. Private universities have the moral right to set minimum criteria for employment. A university like Wheaton has every moral “right” to make membership in a Church a requirement for employment.
And with that statement I definitely agree. While FIRE generally believes that a liberal policy of free expression best serves the educational mission of any university, we also recognize and respect the right of a private university—especially an explicitly religious one—to define its character and abide by certain principles. Students often choose such schools exactly for those reasons. FIRE considers it immoral for a university to promise something (free speech for example) and deliver its opposite (repression), but if a private institution is clear that it places other aspects of its identity above certain rights, it is certainly free to do so. Likewise, PBK, as a private honor society, has the right to deny membership to schools that value an orthodox ideology above freedom of inquiry.
My point was that PBK demonstrates a double standard in that at times it demands free and open inquiry of a university, and other times it lets incursions upon free speech slide. In denying membership to institutions like Wheaton or George Mason University, PBK cites its commitment to “place our chapters only at those American institutions of higher education that share our commitment to freedom of inquiry.” But, as FIRE’s letter to PBK states, the honor society undermines that commitment when it ignores its member institutions’ many speech codes. It is for this very reason that FIRE has implored PBK to stand up to its more repressive member institutions.
More clarification on the distinction between public and private universities can be found on FIRE’s Spotlight page.