The ‘Chronicle’ on Academic Freedom Five Years After 9/11

September 11, 2006

Check out the interesting article by John Gravois in the Chronicle of Higher Education about the state of academic freedom five years after 9/11. In it, he explores how the fears that 9/11 would result in the death of academic freedom and a “new McCarthyism” may have been a bit overblown. Gravois also covers several important FIRE cases that related to 9/11 including the cases of Richard Berthold at the University of New Mexico, Sami-Al-Arian at the University of South Florida, and Ward Churchill at the University of Colorado. Many free speech and academic freedom cases flowed directly out of the 9/11 attacks, but, interestingly, many of the cases FIRE saw in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 actually related to the censorship of students or faculty members who expressed anger or contempt for the terrorists (check out the case at Central Michigan University for a classic example).
As I told Gravois, “[a] lot of the academic-freedom cases we’ve seen have been, in a sense, no different from the academic-freedom cases we saw in the 80s or 90s…It’s just that more people seem to know about them.” To be clear, I did not mean that that all things were bright and rosy for academic freedom in the 80s and 90s; in fact, with the rise of speech codes and political correctness, the situation may have been worse. The recent case of Stephen Kershnar at SUNY Fredonia is a powerful example both of how things have changed and how they haven’t. President Hefner’s decision not to promote Professor Kershnar because of his public criticism of the university’s admissions standards and affirmative action policies could just have easily taken place in 1996 or 1986. What has changed, however, is that information travels much faster than it did 10 or 20 years ago, and, perhaps more importantly, there are groups like FIRE that are able to bring greater attention to these abuses. In 1986, unless he was able to hire to a lawyer, Kershnar would likely have had to accept this brazenly unconstitutional treatment, but today, with greater public awareness and outrage about campus abuses, SUNY Fredonia found itself in a media maelstrom and decided to relent.
Sadly, academic freedom and free speech have always been under attack by one person or another. Sometimes the excuses for censorship change, often they stay eerily similar, but there will likely always be a need for groups like FIRE to defend those rights.