CHICAGO — After Kevin Barrett started talking about a class he planned to teach this fall on Islam, the little-known lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found himself in the middle of a fierce political battle between the school and state politicians.
Barrett told a Milwaukee talk show host in June that he believed that the U.S. government used "controlled demolitions with explosives" on Sept. 11 to bring down the World Trade Center buildings and later said that the idea of a hijacked plane hitting the Pentagon was "preposterous." He plans to discuss these beliefs over one week of the 15-week course for undergraduate students.
Wisconsin lawmakers, however, are trying to stop him.
In a letter delivered Monday to university administrators and Wisconsin Gov. James Doyle, state lawmakers demanded that school officials fire Barrett before the fall semester begins. Sixty-one of the legislature's 133 members — now on summer recess — signed the letter.
And if the school allows Barrett to teach "these lies," some of the legislators who signed the letter are threatening to cut the university system's public funding when the next state budget is reviewed next year, said Republican Rep. Stephen L. Nass.
"The rest of the world believes that the towers were brought down by terrorist actions. Taxpayers are spending $1 billion a year on the University of Wisconsin, and my office is being flooded with calls and e-mails by people who are furious that their dollars are going to be spent teaching such falsehoods," Nass said. "If the university doesn't do something to stop this, then lawmakers will step in and try to deal with it."
School officials say they have no reason to oust Barrett because free speech protects academic freedom.
"We cannot allow political pressure from critics of unpopular ideas to inhibit the free exchange of ideas," said Patrick Farrell, the school's provost. "The university is one of the chief financial engines of this state. It's short-sighted to handicap that engine just because legislators are annoyed with the views of one of our employees."
Barrett, 47, could not be reached for comment.
Academic experts say the controversy reflects an ongoing tug-of-war over free speech protections on college campuses. Some faculty members say they are careful about classroom discussions — particularly involving opinions that the public may find offensive.
"You can't tell someone that they can't say these things because it's not what a moral person would think," said Donald A. Downs, a University of Wisconsin professor of political science, law and journalism and president of Committee for Academic Freedom and Rights, a nonprofit organization. "I'm a supporter of the war on terror. I'm offended by him having these beliefs. But it's censorship to say he can't say these things."
Similar fights have been waged on other campuses in recent years.
The University of Colorado at Boulder is in the process of firing Ward L. Churchill, an ethnic studies professor who became the center of controversy last year when an essay he'd written comparing 9/11 victims to Nazis was unearthed. (The university system launched an investigation of Churchill's academic writings and concluded he'd committed fraud. Churchill, who says he's been targeted for his political beliefs, plans to fight the termination in federal court.)
Though faculty members' personal and political opinions should not bar them from teaching, there are limits on what happens in a classroom, said Jonathan Knight, director in the department of academic freedom and governance at the American Assn. of University Professors.
Yet it should be a school's faculty — not politicians — who say whether a person is fit to teach, Knight said.
"It's all on how the information is taught. If a person uses a classroom as a forum to proselytize his views on 9/11, he shouldn't be there. If he's using those views to explore other ideas and how people reason, that's different," Knight said.
"The thing we do not need is legislative bodies deciding to fund, or not fund, education depending on whether they like what a faculty member says. To do so would create a chilling effect across education," he said.
A lecturer and teacher's assistant at the university for the last three years, Barrett also is co-founder of the Muslim-Jewish-Christian Alliance for 9/11 Truth — a coalition of activists, academics and religious organizers who are pushing for an investigation into whether the U.S. government was involved in the attacks.
Barrett's course, "Islam: Religion and Culture," will focus on the history of Islam, the Koran and the faith's effect on modern-day U.S. society.