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Are Things Getting Worse?

Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression

A FIRE supporter writes with an interesting question:

Maybe it’s just me, but it seems that your two latest cases (and some of your other more recent reports from other campuses) almost seem to indicate a “ratcheting up” on the part of those who wish to squelch free speech on campus. The brazenness of their actions is breathtaking. The Summers incident at Harvard comes to mind as well.
Do you think this might represent some “last gasp” from these folks? Are they trying to get a few more punches in before they lose whatever semblance of control they have left? Their agendas are no longer hidden (as is readily apparent from the RIC incident). Maybe they’re trying to see what troops they can rally to their side before their cause is completely lost.

My response: We have noticed an increase in the brazenness and ferocity of repressive actions on campus—certainly the pace of complaints coming to our website has increased dramatically. I attribute the rise to several factors. First, thanks in large part to FIRE’s work and the work of many other concerned individuals and organizations, more students and professors are now aware that they can fight back. Thus, there is increased reporting of abuses. Second, as students and dissenting professors increasingly confront the campus mainstream, there is an inevitable counter-reaction. The university establishment hardly welcomes challenges to speech codes, challenges to previously dominant ideologies, and questioning of the sacred tenets of the modern campus culture. Third, the campuses also—to a degree—reflect the polarization of the American public. After two intense presidential elections (one conducted in the midst of a controversial war), the temperature of public discourse has been raised. The stakes “feel” so much higher.

In fact, two of the most prominent academic freedom controversies of the new year directly involve issues of war and peace. At Colorado, Ward Churchill had a history of making provocative and outrageous statements. These statements passed virtually unnoticed by the wider world (and even now, his other writings have attracted little attention) until he turned his rhetorical weapons on the World Trade Center victims. If you read about some of his other statements (such as his 1994 suggestion that it would be a “good thing” if a campus cartoonist were executed, dismembered, then cremated), you would realize that his September 11 essay was just another example of Churchill being Churchill.

At Columbia, the campus is being torn apart by allegations that the MEALAC department has not merely sided with Palestinians in the Israeli–Palestinian conflict but has also abused students who dissent from the department’s portrayal of Israel. These actions are profoundly offensive not merely to many Jewish students on campus but also to the large percentage of Americans who view Israel and America as essentially fighting the same war. In other words, the problem is not just that the speech is “controversial” but that it is controversial regarding a subject that is a source of primary concern to the wider culture.

So, better reporting, increased activism (particularly by conservative students), and a more polarized nation all lead directly to greater conflict (and more brazen repression) on campus. I don’t thing things are getting worse. Instead, I see these incidents as signs that we are on the cusp of a real change in higher education, but a change that will be messy, difficult, and contentious.

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