More IU coverage in the NY Times

October 16, 2007

In yesterday’s New York Times, Professor Stanley Fish took an extensive look at Indoctrinate U. While it is clear that the professor and I feel quite differently about the extent of the problems in academia, the final two paragraphs of the piece contained more intellectual honesty than the last bit of coverage the Times gave Indoctrinate U. Professor Fish admits:  

But then there’s the part we should take seriously: professors who use the classroom as a stage for their political views. Maloney speculates that perhaps one out of seven perform in this way. I would put the number much lower, perhaps one out of twenty-five. But one out of 10,000 would be one too many.

Academics often bridle at the picture of their activities presented by Maloney and other conservative critics, and accuse them of grossly caricaturing and exaggerating what goes on in the classroom. Maybe so, but so long as there are those who confuse advocacy with teaching, and so long as faculty colleagues and university administrators look the other way, the academy invites the criticism it receives in this documentary. In 1915, the American Association of University Professors warned that if we didn’t clean up our own shop, external constituencies, with motives more political than educational, would step in and do it for us. Now they’re doing it in the movies and it’s our own fault.
Perhaps my biggest disagreement with Professor Fish is over the issue of speech codes. Professor Fish contends:

This is a fake issue. Every speech code that has been tested in the courts has been struck down, often on the very grounds—you can’t criminalize offensiveness—invoked by Maloney. Even though there are such codes on the books of some universities, enforcing them will never hold up. Students don’t have to worry about speech codes. The universities that have them do, a point made by “Indoctrinate U” when Maloney tells the story of how Cal Poly was taken to the cleaners (no, not his cleaners) when it tried to discipline a student for putting up a poster with the word “plantation” in it.  

In the Cal Poly case cited by Professor Fish, a student spent 18 months of his life under the threat of expulsion while he battled the university all the way up to federal court. His crime? Posting a flier announcing an upcoming event: a speech by Mason Weaver, a black conservative author who wrote a book on economic empowerment called It’s OK to Leave the Plantation. Apparently, Mr. Weaver’s point of view was not welcome in the Multicultural Center on campus, so Steve Hinkle, the student who attempted to post Weaver’s flier in there, had the police called on him and was brought up on disciplinary charges by the school.

Ultimately, Hinkle was vindicated, and Professor Fish focuses only on the positive outcome in order to deem the whole issue of speech codes to be “fake.” But having to spend 18 months fighting for rights that are already constitutionally guaranteed sends a strong signal to other students that expressing the wrong point of view will end up costing you dearly. It corrodes the whole concept of free speech by dissuading people from speaking. After all, if simply hanging a flier could result in 18 months of battles, many students are going to conclude that certain speech just isn’t worth it. People whose views differ from the campus orthodoxy are going to keep quiet. Speech is undoubtedly chilled.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) gets hundreds upon hundreds of cases each year involving students and professors who have had their rights of conscience trampled. Many of these cases center on the “fake issue” of speech codes. A recent study conducted by FIRE found that over 90% of the hundreds of schools they surveyed had some form of speech regulation on the books.

FIRE’s William Creeley comments on Professor Fish’s dismissal of the issue of speech codes:  

First, while Fish correctly observes that “[e]very speech code that has been tested in the courts has been struck down,” he vastly understates the severity of the problem by dismissively concluding that therefore “[s]tudents don’t have to worry about speech codes.” That’s hogwash. While the fact that restrictive speech codes have been consistently struck down in court offers clear proof of their unconstitutionality, it certainly doesn’t mean that “[s]tudents don’t have to worry” about them. Contrary to Fish’s assertions, a student at a college with restrictive speech codes on the books is in danger of being punished for engaging in speech clearly protected by the First Amendment. According to FIRE’s first annual speech code report, Spotlight on Speech Codes 2006: The State of Free Speech on Our Nation’s Campuses, more than 68% of the 330 colleges and universities surveyed maintained policies that clearly and substantially restrict freedom of speech. Regardless of Fish’s contention otherwise, that’s something to worry about, as FIRE’s extensive list of speech code cases proves. Besides, Fish gets it exactly backwards: the fact that speech codes are still so pervasive on our nation’s campuses despite consistently losing in court is cause for outrage, not apathy.

Further, students at schools which maintain speech codes must carefully tailor their speech to satisfy oftentimes inscrutable rules—e.g., students at The Ohio State University must be sure that their words aren’t unintentionally “threatening infliction of emotional harm,” whatever that means—or else risk discipline. The chilling effect that inevitably results causes students to self-censor and renders free speech on campus all the more elusive. This too is something to worry about.

Contrary to Fish’s casual faith in the courts, resorting to litigation in hopes of vindicating one’s right to free speech is almost never an attractive option for students. The sheer amount of time spent securing representation, preparing a case, filing charges and, if necessary, pursuing appeals is extremely daunting to students. Just ask the San Francisco State University College Republicans, who are suing SFSU after being put on trial for “harassment” for stepping on Hamas and Hezbollah flags at an anti-terrorism rally. In addition to spending countless hours preparing their defense against SFSU’s charges, the students have had to coordinate a federal lawsuit against the college they currently attend. That’s not an easy or enjoyable task by any standard, and FIRE knows firsthand that despite the strength of their case, too many students decide that a lawsuit is just not worth the time, stress, trouble and alienation.

Still, the good professor does acknowledge a problem in academia. We just disagree about the scope of it and the interpretation of the data that document it.

There are other points made by Professor Fish that I could quibble with, but I don’t want to spend too much time arguing with someone who says I have “lean boyish looks that could earn [me] a role in Oceans 14 alongside Brad Pitt and Matt Damon.”

Can someone please forward that suggestion to a few agents in L.A.? I’d do it myself, but the self-promotion might be a bit much…even by Hollywood standards.

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