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UW-Madison Seeks to Limit Professor’s Expression of Controversial Opinions

The Chicago Tribune reports that UW-Madison has warned instructor Kevin Barrett—who is not shy about his belief that the United States plotted the 9/11 attacks—to “stop seeking publicity for his views.” This warning came only 10 days after UW-Madison Provost Patrick Farrell cleared Barrett to teach a class this coming Fall on “Islam: Religion and Culture,” implying that the university would actually uphold his First Amendment right to publicly state his opinions.

In a letter dated July 20, Farrell told Barrett that “your subsequent efforts to publicize your ideas suggest that publicity for your views is paramount. If that were to continue, I would doubt your assurance that you will separate your own views and interests, as well as your capacity to separate them from what is needed for a good educational experience for our students.”

So, Barrett has the right to publicly express his opinions, he just can’t exercise that right. Not quite the ringing endorsement of free expression that UW-Madison’s earlier statement implied.

Farrell and the other powers-that-be should be ashamed of warning Barrett not to be too vocal with his opinions. They have already agreed upon rules governing how Barrett should approach his opinions in the classroom, so it’s unreasonable to claim that more public exposure will result in his opinions seeping into what he teaches. It is also unreasonable to assert that Barrett’s opinions will be mistaken for UW-Madison’s official position on 9/11 merely because he teaches there—no reasonable person would make that mistake.

UW-Madison’s reversal on promising to uphold a professor’s right to express his opinions has remarkable consequences. Where would we be without the wisdom and leadership of public intellectuals who have throughout the course of our history stood up for principles in which they believed, however unpopular? UW-Madison and other public institutions should not have veto power over professors’ out-of-class speech. These professors’ opinions might not always be convenient or popular, but are essential nonetheless, and ultimately contribute to a more vital environment, for their campus and beyond.

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