Defending Free Thought and Expression

June 5, 2000

By John Silber

Christopher Monson is a student at Saint Cloud State University in Minnesota. Recently the student newspaper quoted him as arguing that a state university had obligations to public access, and that banning credit card solicitors might have the same legal consequences as banning blacks.

The president of SCSU, Suzanne Williams, took exception to this analogy, and sent an e-mail to all members of the SCSU community in which she announced that “the University finds the statement—intentional or not—to be demeaning and totally inappropriate. We are looking into the quote to determine the circumstances, and to take whatever action is necessary to stem racial insults such as this.”

Had President Williams stopped at the end of her first sentence, one would be left wondering whether the president had any more pressing duties than arguing with an undergraduate over an analogy. But her remark would probably have just made it under the tent of academic disputation.

But by going on to threaten “whatever action is necessary,” an ominous phrase dripping with the belief that ends justify means, she expressed contempt for the principles of free thought and free expression without which no university can live.

But she was not through. The next day, she took to cyberspace again, to notify her subjects that Mr. Monson would be undergoing “sensitivity training” at the hands of the university’s multicultural center—Lake Wobegon’s equivalent of a political re-education camp. Her administration now unconvincingly claims that since Monson was not actually punished for his heresy, his rights were not abridged.

It is alarming that even one university can be headed by someone as hostile to academic freedom as President Williams, but she is merely an unusually crude example of the Thought Police now patrolling our colleges and universities, some of them more distinguished than SCSU.

Recently at Tufts University, the Tufts Christian Fellowship, an evangelical student group, told a member who had concluded that she was bisexual that although she was welcome to remain a member, she could not hold a leadership position. On April 13, the student government promptly “derecognized” the organization, making it the institutional equivalent of an “unperson.” It could not meet on the campus, use the university’s name in its name, or even post notices on the bulletin boards. The Tufts administration took no action over this wanton suppression of a group’s right to its religious views, and stood by for a month while embarrassing publicity spread. On May 16, a student-faculty appeals board suspended the derecognition and remanded the case back to the student committee, where it will probably die.

A major actor in securing what appears to be a happy ending in this case is a remarkable organization called the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), founded by the distinguished historian Alan Charles Kors of the University of Pennsylvania and Harvey Silverglate, the legendary Boston civilrights attorney. Petty educational bureaucrats across the country are learning that if they suppress free speech, exposure—an ordeal by FIRE—is likely to follow. Sunlight is beginning to illuminate and disinfect the islets of the academic Gulag archipelago.

FIRE’s website (www.thefire.org) documents many cases and provides a multitude of useful links. The site lists a number of cases in which university administrations—at schools as well known as Bennington and Berkeley—have shown contempt for freedom of expression and due process. And, as a recent Zogby poll shows, the problem is not anecdotal. Fifty-eight percent of students surveyed thought that the classroom was too politicized; seventy percent believes that professors—whether liberal or conservative—were intolerant of dissent in their classrooms; most dismaying of all, fifty-five percent said that political correctness was interfering with their own education.

In 1964, the University of California prohibited political discussion on campus. Clark Kerr prohibited political activity in Sproul Plaza, but he did not, like his politically correct successors, pick and choose some ideas to be expressed and others to be suppressed. We are moving backwards, led by people who claim to be “progressive.”

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Schools: Saint Cloud State University Tufts University Cases: Tufts University: Refusal to Allow Evangelical Christian Club to Require Leaders to Share Group’s Beliefs Saint Cloud State University: Thought Reform and Suppression of Free Speech