Thursday, December 27, 2012

Free speech in higher education


Nakba Day event at Tel Aviv UniversityWhen students or professors challenge campus orthodoxies, administrators find a way to silence them. But when speakers take positions that are comfortable to the campus Left, administrators turn on a dime, suddenly posing as First Amendment purists.

Nothing is more clichéd in higher education than the selective invocation of freedom of speech. When students or professors challenge campus orthodoxies, administrators find a way to silence them. But when speakers take positions that are comfortable to the campus Left, administrators turn on a dime, suddenly posing as First Amendment purists.

Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and a liberal, observes that “you are far more likely to get in trouble on campus for opposing, for example, affirmative action, gay marriage and abortion rights than you are for supporting them.”

Since support for Israel is now increasingly viewed as a conservative issue, just about anything goes when it comes to Israel-bashing.

It is refreshingly rare to find a commentator who will unflinchingly support freedom of expression whether politically correct or incorrect. Fifteen years ago, such a voice was found in the writing team of Charles Alan Kors and Harvey Silverglade. Their milestone volume, The Shadow University: The Betrayal Of Liberty On America's Campuses, opened eyes to surprisingly widespread censorship in US universities.The Shadow University was so successful that Kors and Silverglade were able to found FIRE, the civil liberties organization which Lukianoff now heads.

TODAY, THE campus situation is hardly better, except for the good work that FIRE now does. Lukianoff has just published a new book that carries the torch from where The Shadow University left off: Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Life, New York: Encounter Books, 2012. Lukianoff is a deft writer with a light touch and good humor, which makes for an entertaining and enlightening read.

Lukianoff's stories of heavy-handed censorship are often cringe-worthy in light of the lip-service that American educators give to the free speech and academic freedom. In case after case, Lukianoff reveals administrators to be vindictive when protecting their prerogatives, enforcing political correctness or silencing their critics. Lukianoff demonstrates that campus censorship betrays civil liberties, undermines democratic values, disserves open debate and limits educational effectiveness.

Lukianoff’s one fault is that Unlearning Liberty never resolves the Hobson’s choice which university administrators too often have to make when confronting offensive speech. On the one hand, they can censor the speech, punishing students or faculty who cross their lines. On the other, they can look the other way, ignoring speech which maybe hurtful or disruptive.

Too often, administrators are inequitable, shuttling between these two positions based on happenstance, caprice, or political pressure. Lukianoff condemns the former option but seems to leave them with nothing but the latter.

There is a better way, although Lukianoff does not say so. In fact, the right response to offensive speech is seldom for administrators to do nothing. While punishing the perpetrator is rarely the right answer, administrators always have other options. The best course is often for administrators to speak out, in a firm but non-threatening way. A strong leader can condemn the offensive speech, articulate their institution’s values and educate the community about civility norms. To ignore this point is to reinforce the Hobson’s choice which leads to either censorship or abdication.

FOR EXAMPLE, Lukianoff tells the story of sociologist William Robinson of the University of California at Santa Cruz. Professor Robinson gained notoriety in January 2009 when he emailed his students approximately 40 photographs juxtaposing Israeli soldiers in Gaza with Nazi soldiers at a concentration camp. In his accompanying message, Robinson spelled out his view that Israel is perpetrating a “slow-motion process of genocide.”

Two of Robinson’s Jewish students were deeply hurt by Robinson’s missive, and the university briefly investigated their claims that Robinson had acted unprofessionally in sending it. In response, Robinson’s allies organized a worldwide campaign which condemned both the two students and the university for trying to censor Robinson.

True to form, Lukianoff sides with Robinson, arguing that the university should not punish him for a message which related, at least arguably, to the subject of his course. Lukianoff argues that “attitudes about Israel on campus would only worsen if students and faculty suddenly found themselves punished for criticizing Israel.”

This view is not unreasonable, although one could debate whether Robinson’s photographs involved more than just criticism. The problem is that Lukianoff stops short here, as he typically does in his stories.

He does not reflect on how a true leader might alleviate the students’ sincere trauma, not to mention Robinson’s dubious analysis, without limiting academic freedom.

A wise university president could condemn Robinson’s conduct without making a free speech martyr out of him. In such cases, university leaders must break out of the Hobson’s choice of censorship or abdication, and rights advocates like Lukianoff should show them how to do it.

The writer is president and general counsel of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law.

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