Friday, October 28, 2005
David French On Academic Freedom
It has become a common tactic for defenders of the academic status quo to equate scrutiny with “McCarthyism” and criticism with censorship. For example, at Brooklyn College, the local professors’ union went so far as to declare that press stories about academic misconduct (such as punishing students who dissented from a professor’s radical views) were part of an effort to “intimidate” the school’s faculty. The union also asked the school’s chancellor to condemn the New York Sun for its attempts to investigate and report faculty wrongdoing. In other words, a group of public officials (and public university professors are public officials) was calling on another public official to condemn the free press for investigating potential unlawful acts of the local government.He's not exaggerating, either. Everyone should read FIRE at least once a week. The organization was founded to defend freedom of thought and speech on American campuses, and it is doing that. Usually it does so by publicizing bad behavior and abuses, but on occasion it will assist in court cases. For example, FIRE has just filed a brief to the Supreme Court asking that the SC hear the appeal of the Hosty V Carter of the Seventh Circuit's decision.
Brooklyn College’s faculty is not alone in confusing criticism for censorship and equating oppression with academic freedom. In the June 8, 2005, issue of Al-Ahram, Joseph Massad, the Columbia University professor at the center of a firestorm of controversy regarding the treatment of pro-Israeli students in Columbia’s Middle East Languages and Culture Department, wrote to decry “the campaign of the last three years . . . to attack U.S. universities as the last bastion where a measure of freedom of thought is still protected.” And what was one of the prime movers in this alleged campaign against academic freedom? Once again, it was the free press – specifically the New York Times, a paper that Massad accused of disseminating “Israeli propaganda” as “objective truth.”
In the distorted world of university censorship, actual violations of the law (such as Brooklyn College’s absurd punishment of dissenting students) represent legitimate exercises of academic freedom, while free speech (such as the New York Sun investigation) is the equivalent of “intimidation” that has a “chilling effect” on academic expression.
Winning the battle in higher education will determine whether our society as a whole will continue to be free. As it stands now, on campuses across the country, the students have less freedom than the Jehovah's Witnesses in public schools did, according to the Supreme Court of the United States, in 1943 in West Virginia. Justice Jackson wrote for the majority in WEST VIRGINIA STATE BOARD OF EDUCATION v. BARNETTE, 319 U.S. 624 (1943):
If official power exists to coerce acceptance of any patriotic creed, what it shall contain cannot be decided by courts, but must be largely discretionary with the ordaining authority, whose power to prescribe would no doubt include power to amend. Hence validity of the asserted power to force an American citizen publicly to profess any statement of belief or to engage in any ceremony of assent to one presents questions of power that must be considered independently of any idea we may have as to the utility of the ceremony in question.This understanding of the Constitution and what rights it preserves for each individual is at stake. Right now, Justice Jackson's view is losing the battle. We can already see the consequences of losing this battle in the unversities, because the next general of "petty officialdom" and indeed federal justices has emerged from our universities with no respect for individual rights at all.
Without promise of a limiting Bill of Rights it is [319 U.S. 624, 637] doubtful if our Constitution could have mustered enough strength to enable its ratification. To enforce those rights today is not to choose weak government over strong government. It is only to adhere as a means of strength to individual freedom of mind in preference to officially disciplined uniformity for which history indicates a disappointing and disastrous end.
We can have intellectual individualism [319 U.S. 624, 642] and the rich cultural diversities that we owe to exceptional minds only at the price of occasional eccentricity and abnormal attitudes. When they are so harmless to others or to the State as those we deal with here, the price is not too great. But freedom to differ is not limited to things that do not matter much. That would be a mere shadow of freedom. The test of its substance is the right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order.
If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us.
It's time to take these institutions back and reestablish the idea that individuals also have the right to dissent.
In addition, the fact that student assessments of teachers is given so much importance, can onlt lead to a deterioratng educational experience.
David French has his work cut out for him.
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