Speaking Freely

Ashley Thorne

At our national conference last weekend in Washington, DC, the NAS hosted plentiful, rousing discussions on the roles of politics, economics, technology, the military, and academic freedom in higher education. The discussion on academic freedom was actually a debate on its true meaning, between NAS president Peter Wood and AAUP president (and self-avowed “tenured radical”) Cary Nelson. Out of all the conversations that happened at the conference, the one that ended up making the news was unexpected: The AAUP is willing to work with organizations like NAS, FIRE, and ACTA to root out speech codes on campus.

Nelson’s declaration was prompted by a feisty Anne Neal (president of ACTA), who approached the microphone during the question-and-answer time period and challenged him to put aside their groups’ main differences to take up shared causes. The audience listened for the tenured radical’s answer. Could it be possible for the NAS and the AAUP to work on common ground? Could he who said, “My classes are pervasively political” and who called all human interaction, meaning, knowledge, and gender “culturally constructed,” agree with us on some point? Apparently, yes.

His reply about fighting speech codes struck Peter Schmidt as newsworthy. One of Schmidt’s three articles on the conference for the Chronicle of Higher Education focuses specifically on this one statement—with no mention of the clash between Wood and Nelson’s definitions of academic freedom, the debate’s main subject.   

Both Nelson speaking at the conference and Schmidt writing in the Chronicle indicated that the AAUP has opposed speech codes for a long time. Indeed, the organization put out a 1994 statement, “On Freedom of Expression and Campus Speech Codes.” The statement declared, “Rules that ban or punish speech based upon its content cannot be justified. An institution of higher learning fails to fulfill its mission if it asserts the power to proscribe ideas…however repugnant.” The document concludes that free speech “is the very precondition of the academic enterprise itself.”

These are worthy pronouncements, consistent with the notion that true learning can take place only in an atmosphere of free exchange. Other than this one 1994 statement, however, there is nothing to be found—no public documentation of policies or actions by the AAUP against speech codes.  The AAUP, of course, is famous for taking vigorous action against colleges and universities that run afoul of its view of academic freedom. It is not as though the organization contents itself with mere enunciations of principle on the issues it takes as really important. But Mr. Nelson went out of his way to declare that he and the AAUP oppose speech codes and he can be assured that NAS, FIRE, and ACTA will hold him to his word. As David French wrote at Phi Beta Cons, “It's time to move from the abstract to the concrete.”

It’s good to see that Nelson’s offer is being documented in such a way as to be unmistakable in the future.

Those who are skeptical about the sincerity of Mr. Nelson’s offer have some reason. For, as French also points out, virtually every institution in higher education says that it opposes speech codes, and “even universities that have speech codes publicly oppose speech codes.” These universities tend to weigh free speech against freedom from hate speech and harassment. In fact, the 1994 AAUP statement acknowledges that “some campuses have felt it necessary to forbid the expression of racist, sexist, homophobic, or ethnically demeaning 

speech, along with conduct or behavior that harasses.” The statement ultimately gives priority to free speech, but it devotes considerable space to  the “compelling interest” that universities have to protect students from “harassment.”

This is among the slipperiest of slopes in the great ski resort of Higher Education Sophistry, at which the AAUP frequently vacations. The definition of “harassment,” we now know, can be extended, as it was in 2007, to a janitor reading a history of Notre Dame defeating the Ku Klux Klan, (see FIRE’s account of the Indiana University—Purdue University Indianpolis’ egregious treatment of Keith John Sampson). AAUP has yet to weigh it on that case.

For that matter, FIRE offers a virtual encyclopedia of cases in which colleges and universities have abused individuals by stretching the meaning of “harassment” beyond all bounds of common sense and decency. If you want to try an experiment, go to the FIRE site, pick a case at random, and then go to the AAUP site and see if our august defender of academic freedom has uttered so much as a peep of protest. If you find a case, let us know. We have exhausted ourselves looking, so far without success.

Mr. Nelson, on beong confronted with this dismal record, allowed that the AAUP is a slow and deliberative organization. It needs time to get to the bottom of things. At this rate, we expect that any day now the AAUP will announce its position on the Second Punic War.

The AAUP’s 1994 pronouncement attempts to wean higher education gently from its censorious ways by suggesting alternatives that themselves sound pretty coercive and—pardon me—just stupid. Thus it recommends “courses and other curricular and co-curricular experiences designed to increase student understanding and to deter offensive or intolerant speech or conduct.” Down this path lies “The Tunnel of Oppression” and other such devices that attempt to “sensitize” students to “hate speech,” but that actually make the adults running the show seem like a collection of Mrs. Grundys. In addition to tolerance education, the AAUP suggests that faculty and student personnel administrators “should make unmistakably clear the harm that uncivil or intolerant speech inflicts.” Well, they can try. But can you make “unmistakably clear” a proposition that isn’t unmistakably true? We could all wish for a lot less “uncivil speech” on campus and in society, but the “harm” it causes is not easy to pin down. In any case, in the last few years, the surfeit of uncivil speech on most college campuses has involved various execrations against President Bush, and we’re not aware of a single instance in which the AAUP or a college campus found this especially “harmful.”

The AAUP’s recommendations sound strangely familiar (Delaware anyone? UMass Amherst?), but of course, from this 1994 document we cannot necessarily conclude that the AAUP favors coercive methods used to mold students’ beliefs to a model of political correctness. It leaves the matter up in the air. 

One thing we know is that the AAUP can make a fuss on academic freedom issues it really cares about. Its “Committee A” regularly conducts investigations and issues reports on universities deemed worthy of its “List of Censured Administrations.” The Association files amicus briefs to “defend diversity” in affirmative action cases, participates in protests in support of collective bargaining, and occasionally, gets its leaders arrested in the process. On several occasions, the AAUP has stepped up to defend radical professors. It protected Ward Churchill’s freedom to call 9/11 victims “little Eichmanns.” It denounced the University of South Florida’s decision to suspend computer science professor Sami al-Arian, who was charged with ties to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Less than a year later after the AAUP defended him, al-Arian was indicted for his terrorist connections and eventually convicted.

But the AAUP did not help protect other professors’ academic freedom. In 1995, Jay Bergman, professor of history at Central Connecticut State University, disputed with a student who had torn down an article Bergman posted on a public campus bulletin board. Rather than defend the professor’s right to post the article, which “described an atmosphere of intolerance at CCSU for faculty members who criticize affirmative action,” the administration issued Bergman an official reprimand, saying that he had threatened and harassed the student. Bergman filed a grievance with the university, “citing provisions of CCSU’s American Association of University Professors contract that were violated.” Where was the AAUP in this case? Bergman recalled, “The AAUP was utterly useless. It remained silent throughout the many months that I contested the reprimand that CCSU imposed on me unfairly, and it took no actions whatever on behalf of the principles implicit in the whole matter.”

The bulletin board story was covered by the New York Times, the Washington Times, and US News and World Report, but not by the AAUP.

Similarly, James Miller, an economics professor at Smith College, was denied tenure, in part because his colleagues were disturbed by his writings for the conservative National Review Online. Miller had written about discouraging trends in political correctness on campus, as well as his discovery that “professors are mostly left-wing.” When Miller asked the AAUP to help him plead his case, it refused, saying that he had not followed procedure in filing the complaint. Meanwhile, the Association wrote to the Smith tenure review committee to endorse its decision to deny tenure to Miller. Not only did the AAUP fail to defend the professor, it also covertly sided with the university against him.

These incidents and others like them demonstrate that the AAUP tends to act only when doing so furthers the agenda of the campus Left. From the examples cited further above, it’s clear that the Association can do something in a situation where it feels compelled to defend academic freedom. Apparently that action is only offered to those who fit the AAUP’s political mold.

Let’s return to speech codes. The American Association of University Professors has failed to provide evidence for its so-called long history of opposition to them. Without this evidence, we can guess what happened: when pressed to defend one self-evident aspect of true academic freedom, Nelson hastily agreed in order to gain immunity from accusations that the AAUP does not care about students’ freedom of speech. Yet throughout the debate, Nelson refused to acknowledge other rights of students, such as the right not to be graded based on the professor’s politics. And although at the NAS conference Nelson denied that students were entitled to academic freedom, his declaration about speech codes indicates a belief that academic freedom does belong not only to faculty (and graduate students who teach), but also to students. (Stay tuned: we intend to more closely address the question of Lernfreiheit soon.)  During the debate, Peter Wood quoted from Nelson’s 1999 book, Academic Keywords, where Nelson in fact declared that academic freedom “gives both students and faculty in the classroom the right to say whatever they believe in pertinent to the subject at hand.” But apparently Nelson has changed his mind about the student portion of his earlier statement.

Equivocation generally indicates that someone is trying to appeal to both sides of the debate. The best we can make of Nelson’s inconsistency is that he offered too generous a characterization of the AAUP’s longtime action against speech codes. Whether the group actually makes a change is left to be seen. NAS is willing to join ACTA and FIRE in their optimism. We’d like to take Cary Nelson at his word. And we’d like to see his word turn to deed.  As President Reagan advised in dealing with the Soviet Union, perhaps we would be best served by adopting a “trust but verify” policy.

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