Academia's swindle

Posted: Aug 15, 2002 12:00 AM
University of Pennsylvania history professor Alan Charles Kors calls today's university codes of conduct a "generational swindle." In the 1960s, radical students demanded and won free-speech rights at public universities. Now ,many of them are tenured professors, and they're imposing speech codes on helpless students. When universities clamp down on political incorrectness, Kors noted, the contest is between "totally unarmed students facing administrators who feed them totally spurious legal and self-contradictory theories about rights." Kors is a veteran of many battles in which old-style academics like him pitched their tents against entrenched ideologues who have tried to turn universities into domains that teach their politics only. In 1999, Kors and Boston attorney Harvey Silverglate formed the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education ( so they'd have an organization to back them. FIRE now claims many victories. Kors confided that the Achilles heel of the speech-code advocates is "that they can't defend in public what they do in private." FIRE proved as much when the group took on the student-led class at the University of California at Berkeley, "The Politics of Poetics of Palestinian Resistance." In the class description, the instructor warned, "Conservative thinkers are encouraged to seek other sections." After the story made the papers, the instructor rescinded his warning, which had been part of the course description for two years. The double-standard was evident. In the end, UC-Berkeley did the right thing, but you know that no UC-Berkeley department would have permitted a course description that warned liberals not to apply. How did Sept. 11 affect FIRE? The group quickly defended a handful of professors whose jobs were on the line after they blamed U.S. policies. FIRE believes schools shouldn't fire professors for holding unpopular opinions. True to that goal, FIRE risked angering donors, Kors said, by challenging the University of South Florida's decision to fire -- then place on leave while trying to fire -- Sami Al-Arian, a computer engineering professor best known for his proclamation, "Death to Israel." (Al-Arian is no poster boy for free speech. In the 1990s, the federal government investigated whether Al-Arian's Islamic think-tank was a front for Middle Eastern terrorists. But if the government didn't gather enough to prosecute or deport Al-Arian, a Palestinian, it's not the university's job to punish him.) That said, Kors noted that for every professor in trouble for criticizing U. S. policy from the left, there were five or 10 students in hot water for supporting the war on terrorism. UC-Berkeley, again. After the Daily Californian ran a Sept. 18 cartoon featuring two terrorists in turbans ready to "meet Allah and be fed grapes," students introduced a bill to the campus' student senate that proposed raising the Daily Cal's rent unless it printed an apology for the cartoon and adopted "voluntary diversity training." The bill noted that "Berkeley remains one of the few places in the world where a thoughtful, critical exchange can occur from people across a spectrum of backgrounds and races, without fear of reprisal or hatred." The glaring irony was unintentional. The student censors said that they didn't want to suppress differing viewpoints, but that for the public good, it was their duty to prevent speech that is racist, divisive or likely to lead to violence. How sad that academics and students at premier universities so little appreciate the First Amendment that they can justify suppressing opinions they don't like.