For an organization less than two months old, Campus Watch has caused quite a stir. It's a Web site (www.campus-watch.org) that gathers and posts information "on professors who fan the flames of disinformation, incitement and ignorance" about the Mideast, to quote from the site itself.
This project has generated considerable fuss among those who say they're concerned about free expression at universities. Locally, for example, a retired Concordia University psychology professor, Zalman Amit, went to bat for free speech by requesting - as did over 100 other scholars across the continent - to be named on Campus Watch's list, in solidarity with the professors singled out there.
We think much of the outcry over Campus Watch is hysterical, if not political. Let's step back and think this through:
To understand Campus Watch, you have to start with its parent organization, the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum. This outfit, according to its Web site (www.meforum.org) "holds that the United States has vital interests in the region; in particular, it believes in strong ties with Israel, Turkey, and other democracies as they emerge; works for human rights throughout the region; seeks a stable supply and a low price of oil; and promotes the peaceful settlement of regional and international disputes."
And to understand the Forum, start with its director, and the guiding spirit of Campus Watch. He is Daniel Pipes, a prominent American "public intellectual" with a PhD (in history) from Harvard. He is the son of Richard Pipes, also a Harvard PhD and a Russia expert. Daniel Pipes is a Mideast specialist who has worked in the U.S. State and Defence departments, writes a column for the New York Post and the Jerusalem Post, has lectured in 25 countries, has written 11 books and has been published in many U.S. newspapers and magazines. The Wall Street Journal called him "an authoritative commentator on the Middle East."
So why is such a big man on campus stifling free speech? Well, of course, he is not. Campus Watch is part of "a battle over ideas," Mr. Pipes told the New York Times. "To bring in this notion of academic freedom is nonsense. No one is interfering with their right to say anything they want."
The Campus Watch Web site says the group "monitors and critiques Middle East studies in North America, with an aim to improving them. The project mainly addresses five problems: analytical failures, the mixing of politics with scholarship, intolerance of alternative views, apologetics and the abuse of power over students. Campus Watch fully respects the freedom of speech of those it debates while insisting on its own freedom to comment on their words and deeds." We don't see anything wrong with any of that.
Freedom of speech is not freedom from criticism. The solution to problems caused by free speech is more free speech, not less.
Professors with or without tenure who use universities to endorse political positions, on the Mideast or any other issue, must expect their claims, their logic and their understanding to be challenged freely, and that's what Campus Watch has done.
When free speech goes on to become a menace, the picture changes. Pro-life activists who published lists of the home addresses of abortion doctors, for example, went too far.
But Campus Watch does nothing of that sort; Campus Watch is about ideas. There's nothing to be afraid of in that.