The provost of the University of Wisconsin at Madison announced last week that the university would conduct a “review” of an instructor who has publicly stated that he believes the 9/11 attacks were an “inside job.” The instructor, Kevin Barrett, was a guest on a radio show last week where he defended his controversial views. Shortly thereafter a state representative called for Barrett’s immediate dismissal and UWM provost Patrick Farrell announced the review of Barrett’s course materials, syllabus, and evaluations.
“Mr. Barrett’s statements regarding the events of Sept. 11 have raised some legitimate concerns about the content and quality of instruction in his planned fall course, ‘Islam: Religion and Culture,’” Farrell publicly stated to a Wisconsin newspaper.
As far as the law is concerned there can be little doubt that Barrett is free to have controversial opinions and to express them outside of class. This is as it should be. As FIRE has made very clear time after time in the case of Washington State University Student Ed Swan, it is not the state’s place to judge the personal beliefs of public education teachers. Doubtlessly, on the one hand, one can have the most “correct” views and be a lousy teacher; on the other hand, one can have odd, eccentric, or genuinely dissenting personal views and be an excellent teacher.
Of course, a public university generally may punish even a tenured professor (Barrett is untenured) because he spent too much time on material not germane to the content of the class, for abusing his power over students, or for general incompetence or other legitimate wrongdoing without offending the strong protections of freedom of speech or the principles of academic freedom. The university does not appear, however, to be alleging any of these circumstances.
Barrett anticipated and addressed the concern that he might be abusing his power quite directly: “I look forward to the chance to discuss this with anyone who’s interested, and I understand why this would raise concerns. When professors have a strong commitment to a point of view, it’s important that they not impose their views on students.”
FIRE saw a stunning example of this kind of imposition of views when a professor at Citrus College badly abused her power over students by offering extra credit for students who wrote anti-war letters to be sent to President Bush. She offered no credit for students with any other point of view. That kind of abuse of power is not evident here—especially as Barrett has not even begun teaching the course.
What we are therefore left with is that the University of Wisconsin has launched an investigation into a professor simply because of his controversial views. FIRE has always opposed such “investigations” as threats to free expression in and of themselves.
Thomas Jefferson once said, “Error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.” We have much more to fear from an erosion of the principles of freedom of speech and academic freedom than we do from any particular professor’s opinions. Meanwhile, by clearly basing this “review” on his political opinions, the University of Wisconsin System has again opened itself to the criticism that it simply does not grasp the basic principles of liberty—whether they apply to Christian RAs, progressive student newspapers, parody, or its own instructors. UW needs better legal advice or, at very least, should consider asking always-wise UW professor Donald Downs’ opinion before getting itself into these messes.