The Paradox of Self-Censorship

February 9, 2005

In the words of Blackstar’s Mos Def and Talib Kweli, “The Man has programmed my conditioning; even my conditioning has been conditioned.”

These lyrics truly resonate when reflecting on some of the recent academic freedom controversies on campus. One of the most disturbing forms of censorship (though it cannot actually be called “censorship” because no official authority is prohibiting speech) involves individuals who punish themselves by not exercising their right to express their viewpoint—individuals who engage in “self-censorship.” Have these individuals, or people generally, been conditioned to see themselves as “victims” of oppression (or “intimidation”) when, in fact, they still possess the full power to stand up for their beliefs and assert their rights? Or is it that they believe academic freedom is not a battle worth fighting for? By caving in to the pressure of their opponents, these individuals often perpetuate, rather than negate, the idea that what they have said may well be “wrong” by engaging in various forms of self-censorship.

Take, for example, the case of Columbia University Professor Joseph Massad. Apparently, Professor Massad cancelled a controversial course because of “intimidation.” On his website, he states that:

Indeed with this campaign against me going into its fourth year, I chose under the duress of coercion and intimidation not to teach my course this year. It is my academic freedom that has been circumscribed. But not only mine. The Columbia courses that remain are all taught from an Israel-friendly angle.

This “intimidation” seemed to come only from students making accusations against him in a controversial documentary and from a government official calling for his resignation or dismissal—that is, constitutionally protected speech that does not in any way constitute true “intimidation” or censorship. There is no public evidence that Columbia itself has tried to censor Massad or punish him if he did not cancel his course. If there has indeed been such coercion, Massad should give proof of this to the public, to FIRE, and to other supporters of academic freedom.

Otherwise, if he is innocent of the allegations against him, why did he not steadfastly defend his academic freedom and continue teaching his course? Is he not serving exactly the desires of those who disagree with him by eliminating his course from the “marketplace of ideas” for potential students—especially those who do want to learn from his viewpoints? By self-censoring (i.e., not teaching a course that he would have otherwise taught if the controversy never arose), Massad (not a university official or outside critic) has done an injustice to Columbia students who actually would have taken his course and would have benefited from his teaching and point of view. Furthermore, if his claim that the remaining courses are “all taught from an Israel-friendly angle” is true, the removal of his course only makes these allegedly ideologically undiverse course offerings worse.

Massad has, as my 10th-grade English teacher used to say, “cut off his nose to spite his face.” To argue that others have infringed on his academic freedom and then voluntarily to remove his course from the marketplace of ideas seems contradictory. If Massad truly has the courage of his convictions, he should have continued teaching his course.

Schools:  Columbia University