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Hunting Witches and Terrorists

As we have pointed out before, American University President Benjamin Ladner is currently suspended and under investigation for possible misuse of AU funds. In a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription required), Ladner responded to the controversy with a striking statement:

In a lengthy interview with The Chronicle, Mr. Ladner said he wants to return to his post. "I felt mugged," he said of the recent furor over his expenses. "Clearly it was a witch hunt. I now know that."

The reason that comment was so striking to me is that Ladner ought to know a witch hunt when he sees one. Why? Because his administration wrote the book on the subject with its relentless persecution of then-student critic Ben Wetmore in 2002. Unfortunately, Ladner did not object to that witch hunt; rather, his administration refused to back down even in the face of a letter from AU alum and FIRE Director of Legal and Public Advocacy Greg Lukianoff and a subsequent storm of negative publicity.

And Greg’s alma mater is not the only one in the news lately—mine (Bucknell University) is, too. FIRE friend Evan Coyne Maloney, director of Brainwashing 101 and the upcoming Indoctrinate U, wrote a brief article on a recent controversy at the university from which both of us graduated. The piece has subsequently made the rounds of the blogosphere, being posted on The Corner, The Volokh Conspiracy, Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish, and others.

To Bucknell’s discredit, it seems that leaders of the university’s Conservatives Club (full disclosure: I was involved in this group throughout my college career and now serve on its alumni board) were called into an administrator’s office because some on campus were offended by the use of the phrase “hunting terrorists” in a campus-wide e-mail advertising a speech by an Army major who served in Afghanistan. According to the students, the administrator held up a printout of the e-mail and said, “We have a problem.”

And she was right—but the problem was not that someone was offended by the seemingly innocuous phrase. The problem is that “hunting terrorists” is clearly protected speech—in fact, to use one of Greg’s favorite descriptions, it’s not even close to the line—and penalizing students for using protected speech creates what is called a “chilling effect.” That is, even if there is no “formal” punishment (such as judicial charges being filed for a violation of Bucknell’s red-light speech code), students who want to stay out of trouble will think twice the next time they say something that might possibly be considered offensive, lest they be called into another administrative office to be dressed down by someone in a position of authority.

Since Bucknell is a private institution, it is not legally obligated to abide by the First Amendment, but since it advertises itself as an institution that “values free speech and academic freedom,” it does have a moral obligation to guarantee those things. (If it guarantees freedom and instead delivers repression, that constitutes false advertising.) And were an administrator at a public university (remember: a state employee) to call some students into her office to berate them for protected speech that offended someone, that would clearly violate the Supreme Court’s ruling in Barnette, which held:

If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.

FIRE has not gotten formally involved in the Bucknell case, but we are watching. In fact, FIRE President David French is visiting the campus on October 20 to lecture on “How Bucknell Can Restore Free Speech and Freedom of Conscience.” It pains me to say it, but my alma mater sorely needs his advice. Hopefully those in power there will, unlike Ladner, reform their practices and prove to be more than fair-weather friends of freedom.

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