Holocaust Denial, Truth, and Academic Freedom

Ashley Thorne

This week the Chronicle presents two views on the question, "Does Academic Freedom Protect Holocaust Deniers?" Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), says, "It depends on the context," and imagines some scenarios in which declarations that the Holocaust never happened would and would not fall under the protection of academic freedom. He concludes that "Holocaust denial is speech promoting falsity as truth."

We have not known Professor Nelson or the AAUP to  champion "truth" as the university's object of pursuit. At the 2009 NAS conference, Nelson asserted, "I teach the cultural construction of all meaning as a fact of human life." And in its 2007 report Freedom in the Classroom, the AAUP attempts to define "truth" down to majority rule within a discipline. But maybe Nelson has changed his mind, and now he sees truth as indispensable in the context of academic freedom. If so, that's excellent news.

Naomi Schaefer Riley, however, doesn't buy it. "The president of the American Association of University Professors sometimes has to decide which Holocaust deniers in the academy he will defend and which ones he will not," she writes. The logic of how the AAUP chooses whom it will support and whom it will denounce, she says, "requires the kind of intellectual backflipping that no amateur should attempt." Academics who reject the historical Holocaust can apparently get away with it as long as they don't claim to do so as an expert on the topic. Riley sighs, "It's enough to make you wonder if maybe we need to rethink what we mean by academic freedom."

Ah, the meaning of academic freedom. This happens to be NAS's specialty (and, back in 1915, the AAUP's). Peter Wood even debated Cary Nelson on this very question last year. Perhaps the best place to find a comprehensive answer is Wood's "Is Academic Freedom a Highway or a Can Opener?" When we know what academic freedom really means, we can better evaluate whether it applies to those who promote "falsity as truth."

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