April 1 2001: A Clarion Call for Academic Freedom

When the forces of political correctness on university campuses ooze out to smother academic freedom, it generally happens in the dark, shielded from public view. Deans launch confidential investigations, boards accountable to no one hold closed hearings, administrators impose penalties for offenses only they can perceive on evidence only they have seen. And the accused, who must defend themselves in a legal netherworld where due process is a hollow joke, are further demoralized by the conviction that no one knows what is happening to them and no one cares. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education believes a strong dose of disinfecting sunlight is an excellent remedy. The Philadelphia-based organization was established by Alan Charles Kors, a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, and civil-liberties attorney Harvey Silverglate. In 1998, Kors and Silverglate published “The Shadow University,” which documented the extent to which the political apparatus of speech and harassment codes, campus judiciaries and the regimentation of residential life were stifling academic inquiry and individual liberty on college and university campuses. By itself, the book should have scotched the PC defense that “a few isolated incidents” were being endlessly recycled. It cited dozens, and it would have been many times longer if it had included all the cases the authors knew about. And after the book was published, Kors and Silverglate heard many more horror stories. FIRE (http://www.thefire.org on the Web) is their response. It provides support to individuals and publicity for their plight. “Universities need to feel (and to change their behaviors in response to) the shame and liabilities of public exposure,” they say. If you’re not routinely involved in higher education, you may not realize that many senior administrators have had their spines surgically removed as they crawled up the academic ladder. Pressured by campus activists and intimidated by protests or the threat thereof, they bend without resistance. But facing equally unpalatable publicity in The Chronicle of Higher Education (which their peers and their faculty read) and on the Fox network (which their alumni and trustees watch), they’ll readily bend in the opposite direction. Or maybe they really do want to do the right thing in protecting academic freedom, and just need a little help. Whichever, as long as they do it. The latest case, which hit the Chronicle March 27, concerns poet Linda McCarriston, who teaches creative writing at the Anchorage campus of the University of Alaska. McCarriston published a poem, “Indian Girls,” about the sexual abuse of children, in the December 2000 issue of the journal Ice Floe. Protesters complained to her department chairman, who told them he had forwarded their messages to the dean “in charge of resolving such matters.” The chancellor said in an e-mail that the dean “is now actively dealing with the issues and events involved and is working toward a positive and appropriate result.” “I felt so alone and abandoned before FIRE was at my side,” McCarriston said. She told the Chronicle, “I felt like I was hung out to dry” by campus administrators. When FIRE’s Kors alerted President Mark Hamilton of the University of Alaska to the situation, his subordinates at first denied there was any investigation, a difficult position to maintain given their own statements. Hamilton issued a strongly worded memo to his wavering chancellors. “Responses to complaints of demands for action regarding constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech CANNOT BE QUALIFIED (emphasis his).” Such comments as “The University supports the right of free speech, but I have asked Dean X or Provost Y to investigate the circumstances” are unacceptable, he said. “There is nothing to ‘check into,’ nothing to ‘investigate.’” He does understand that some constitutionally protected speech is offensive or unwelcome. “Opinions expressed by our employees, students, faculty or administrators don’t have to be politic or polite. However personally offended we might be,” he concluded, “I insist that we remain a certain trumpet on this most precious of Constitutional rights.” FIRE sounds that certain trumpet.

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