Free-Speech Group Questions Phi Beta Kappa’s Commitment to Academic Freedom

November 30, 2005

A free-speech group has put the Phi Beta Kappa Society on the spot by accusing it of an inconsistent commitment to academic freedom.

In a nine-page letter faxed to Phi Beta Kappa on Tuesday, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education detailed its objections to what it described as speech codes at seven colleges and universities where the honor society has chapters.

“So many of Phi Beta Kappa’s member institutions have unconstitutional speech codes that we cannot list them all here,” Samantha Harris, program officer of the advocacy group, said in the letter, which called the speech policies at the seven institutions “particularly repressive.”

The letter from the free-speech group, commonly known as FIRE, was written in response to Phi Beta Kappa’s rejection this year of an application to establish a chapter on the campus of George Mason University (The Chronicle, March 2).

At that time a professor at George Mason said that the rejection had been partly based on Phi Beta Kappa’s disapproval of George Mason’s decision to cancel a lecture by the controversial filmmaker Michael Moore, who had been speaking on college campuses across the country in the weeks before the 2004 presidential election (The Chronicle, October 4, 2004). The honor society did not comment on its reason for denying George Mason’s wish to open a chapter.

“If Phi Beta Kappa considers academic freedom a criterion for membership,” FIRE’s letter said, the honor society should “ensure that academic freedom is protected at all Phi Beta Kappa institutions.”

“We’re happy to have Phi Beta Kappa in the fight for free speech,” Greg Lukianoff, FIRE’s director of legal and public advocacy, said in an interview on Tuesday. But if the honor society is really in that fight, he said, it should respond to the “truly ridiculous speech codes” cited in the letter.

The honor society said on Tuesday that, while it supported free speech, it could not enforce civil liberties on college campuses. “Clearly Phi Beta Kappa is interested in freedom of inquiry and freedom of expression,” said John Churchill, secretary of the society. But “it is not one of our functions to police and patrol the practices of institutions that have chapters,” he said. The society does not “undertake that kind of investigative activity.”

Still, Mr. Churchill added, “we would hope that Phi Beta Kappa members would be advocates” of free speech on their campuses. “Certainly they have the official statements of Phi Beta Kappa as a national organization at their disposal to enter in the conversation,” he said.

George Mason has remained “disappointed” over Phi Beta Kappa’s rejection of the bid for a campus chapter, said Daniel L. Walsch, a spokesman for the university. “The decision to disinvite Michael Moore had nothing to do with freedom of speech,” he said. “It was just the money.” Mr. Moore planned to charge the university $35,000 for his lecture.

“We have never paid any public figure that much money to speak,” said Mr. Walsch. Following the cancellation, Mr. Moore announced that he would speak at no charge, according to Mr. Walsch. The university’s response was “great, let’s talk,” he said, but “his people never called our people.”

Cases:  Phi Beta Kappa: Member Institutions’ Speech Codes