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What 9/11 Taught Us About Academia

Today, FIRE joins the rest of the nation in remembering the tragic events of September 11, 2001. Five years ago, the events of 9/11 highlighted—in a very ugly way—just how out of touch many universities are with the American public. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when much of America was still in mourning, a number of very prominent universities moved swiftly to suppress displays of public sympathy and patriotism by students and faculty. Here are some examples of university actions in September and October 2001:

  • At Central Michigan University, an administrator told several students to remove various patriotic posters (an American flag, an eagle, and so on) from their dormitory. On October 8, a Residential Advisor told them that their display was “offensive,” and that they had until the end of the day to remove the items. As one student said, “American flags or pictures that were pro-American had to be taken down because they were offensive to people.” After FIRE intervened, CMU President Michael Rao made clear that any residential staff who asked students to remove materials from their dormitory doors acted without understanding his administration's commitment to the Bill of Rights and to freedom of expression.
  • At the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts, the chair of the department of sociology, Professor Royce Singleton, demanded that a secretary remove an American flag that she had hung in the departmental office. The flag was in memory of her friend Todd Beamer, who fought and died on the hijacked United Airlines Flight 93 over Pennsylvania. When she refused, Singleton removed it himself. After unfavorable publicity, the College apologized, but the flag in question was moved to the department of psychology.
  • Soon after the terrorist attacks, Johns Hopkins University Professor Charles H. Fairbanks voiced his support, at a public forum, for an aggressive campaign against states that harbor terrorists. He said that he would “bet anyone here a Koran” that his analysis was correct. One member of the audience charged that he sought to “assist people in conducting hate crimes” with his language. Even though Fairbanks apologized for his remark about the Koran, the university demanded a written apology and eliminated his position as director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, claiming that Fairbanks was unfit for the job. After media criticism of this dismissal, the university reversed its decision.
  • Two days after the terrorist attacks, the Vice Provost of Student Affairs at Lehigh University, John Smeaton, ordered the removal of the American flag from the campus bus. After adverse publicity, the flag was replaced. The next day, Vice Provost Smeaton publicly apologized for his action.
  • At Pennsylvania State University, one professor's web page advocated vigorous military action as a response to the terrorist attacks of September 11. Penn State's Vice Provost for Academic Affairs, Robert Secor, informed the professor that the comments were “insensitive and perhaps even intimidating.” In a letter to President Graham Spanier, FIRE noted that such a message, coming from the chief academic officer, chills free speech and academic freedom—especially when, as at Penn State, “intimidating” expression is grounds for dismissal. President Spanier responded with an unequivocal endorsement of free speech and academic freedom at his institution, but he denied that the Vice Provost's use of the term “intimidating” in any manner chilled the professor's free speech. Spanier assured FIRE that the matter would not be the subject of any disciplinary action.
  • At San Diego State University, an international student, Zewdalem Kebede, overheard several other students, speaking loudly in Arabic, express delight about the terrorist attacks. Kebede engaged the students and, in Arabic, challenged their positions. Kebede was accused by San Diego State University of abusive behavior toward the four students. A University judicial officer formally admonished Kebede and warned him that “future incidents [will result in] serious disciplinary sanctions.” FIRE wrote to University president Stephen Weber about Kebede's rights and about Weber's obligations to the Constitution.
  • Shortly after the attacks, the University of Massachusetts granted a permit for a student rally to protest any use of force in waging the war against terrorism. The protest was held. Another student group reserved the same place to hold a rally in support of America's policy towards terrorism, but two days before the rally, their permit was revoked. Students held the rally anyway, and their pamphlets were publicly vandalized, with impunity.

If this disgusts you, take action. Before you decide where to attend school—or where to send your child to school—use FIRE’s Spotlight to find out about cases like this at the universities you are considering. Read the First Amendment and FIRE’s Guide to Free Speech on Campus and stand up for your rights on campus. As you can see from the above blurbs, many of these universities were forced to relent after public criticism of their actions. As we say time and again, universities cannot defend in public what they do in private. We here at FIRE are working every day to bring these abuses to light, and we invite you to join in the fight by speaking out on your own campus.

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