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FAIR’s Unfair Critique

On February 1, 2005, ABC News’ World News Tonight ran a lengthy report detailing the problem of liberal academic censorship of conservative speech. The report highlighted three FIRE cases and included interviews of me and several students. Yesterday, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) issued a press release critical of ABC’s report (and critical of my quote in that report). FAIR’s release represents a perfect example of how partisan advocacy groups often use deceptive spin to protect their loyal constituents from hearing anything other than the things they want to hear.

First, FAIR describes my quote in the piece (“You’re going to get more political and intellectual diversity at your average suburban mega-church than you are at an elite university”) as an “ideological” statement that is disguised by FIRE’s description as “nonpartisan.” Note that FAIR does not dispute the accuracy of my quote. It can’t. As recent studies have shown, the level of support for John Kerry amongst Ivy League employees, for example, hovered around 90% (at least as measured by political contributions). According to the 2004 exit polls, regular churchgoers gave Bush 64% of their vote, and Bush won “only” 77% of those who believe abortion should be illegal “in all cases.”

Also, no one can credibly argue that FIRE is anything but nonpartisan. A look at our case archive demonstrates that we support the free speech and academic freedom of students and professors from across the political spectrum. A look at our program staff and our Board of Directors demonstrates the breadth of intellectual diversity at FIRE. In other words, we are as diverse as universities (falsely) claim to be.

Second, FAIR attempts to discredit ABC’s use of student claims of bias at Columbia by referencing the New York Civil Liberties Union as essentially the final authority on the viability and significance of those claims. As FIRE has comprehensively argued, the NYCLU’s understanding of the situation is fundamentally flawed. While it is true that there have been some inappropriate threats against the Columbia professors, neither the NYCLU nor FAIR can rebut the underlying (and undeniable) reality that Columbia’s Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures department is biased against Israel and that its professors have demonstrated that bias inside and outside of class.

FAIR then attacks the compelling story of Ahmad Al-Qloushi (the Kuwaiti student who was threatened with deportation and recommended for therapy when he wrote a paper praising the Constitution) not by disputing any of the underlying facts, but instead by arguing that the paper Al-Qloushi wrote was “unresponsive to the assignment” and deserved a failing grade. As a former lecturer at Cornell Law School, I can assure you that I never knew the disciplinary options for “unresponsive” or poor-quality essays included psychotherapy and deportation. FAIR cannot really believe that inferior students should be deprived of their constitutional rights.

Finally, FAIR takes issue with the use of Robert O’Neil as a contrary voice. This is silly. Mr. O’Neil is perhaps the most prominent critic of the conservative academic freedom movement. In one widely circulated AP report, he commented that “even the most contentious or disaffected of students in the ’60s or early ’70s never really pressed this kind of issue.” While there are certainly other critics of the movement, it is appropriate for ABC to select the most publicly prominent.

ABC’s report was accurate, and it was balanced. FAIR chose the wrong target for its sloppy, partisan release.

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