To the editor:
In your excellent and well-balanced editorial on campus-watch, you correctly note that "while professors put their reputations on the line whenever they teach a class or publish an article, be it scholarly or popular. Campus-watch's campus surveyors—who report 'anti-Semitic' statements or opinions from professors and classes—are held to no such standards, instead submitting reports anonymously to the Web site." Yet, this is only one side of the story. This is because there is an inherent imbalance in power between professors and students.
To cite one recent well-publicized example, the catalog description for Berkeley's fall 2003 English R1A "The Politics and Poetics of Palestinian Resistance," states "The brutal Israeli military occupation of Palestine, [ongoing] since 1948, has systematically displaced, killed, and maimed millions of Palestinian people. And yet, from under the brutal weight of the occupation, Palestinians have produced their own culture and poetry of resistance. This class will examine the history of the [resistance] and the way that it is narrated by Palestinians in order to produce an understanding of the Intifada..." This class takes as its starting point the right of Palestinians to fight for their own self-determination. Conservative thinkers are encouraged to seek other sections. Aside from the obvious disregard for freedom of inquiry, can anyone really believe that the difference in power would clearly not manifest itself in the student's grade if a student were to take this class and produce a fine paper that either calls into question the erroneous and blatantly inciteful claim that "millions" of Palestinians have been "displaced, killed AND maimed." or questioned the moral legitimacy of attacks on Israeli civilians?
Furthermore, given this power differential, the cover of anonymity is sometimes necessary. For example, the web site vault.com allows employees (and potential employees) to critique and discuss employer practices, and most importantly to name names. Clearly, several of the employees and posters cast aspersions or sometimes write wholesale and often unfair rants on their managers and employers. Yet prospective employees are often able to wade through the blather and arrive at a reasonable assessment of a company's culture and outlook. It is the rare Chicago student who does not utilize vault.com.
What is most important in the academic context is that debate not be stifled. A similar debate took shape in the late 1960s and early1970s when students demanded (pre-Internet) an opportunity to critique the teaching of their professors. Then as now the faculty sounded the alarm that this critique would adversely alter their "scholarship" or was a McCarthyite attempt to silence them and force them to alter their viewpoints in order to assuage the "popular opinion" and "the lowest common denominator" of their students. Today, of course, instructor critiques are an essential part of the end of the quarter rites, and instructors routinely leave the room while students critique them. Similarly, medical research on the internet has empowered patients and transformed medicine even as physicians grumble over the attack on their "authority" and "judgment."
Thus, let academics in this university and beyond who argue that their speech is being stifled set up alternative campus-watch websites to defend themselves from a pro-Arab or any other perspective. For this there is ample precedent. One finds on the Internet both pro-Israel (honestreporting.com) and pro-Arab media watch sites (pmwatch.com). Incredibly, there is a pro-Israel CNN-watch site called cnnwatch.com, and a pro-Arab CNN-watch site called cnnwatch.net, which sometimes argue that the same article is respectfully blatantly pro-Israel or pro-Arab. There is Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (Fair.org), which in turn is balanced by Media Research Center (mrc.org). One of the most enjoyable parts of reading the newspapers is watching each side do battle in the letters to the editor/op-ed page of the newspaper. Clearly, students are smart enough to lend credence to the site that is best able to substantiate its claims and presents the most cogent arguments. The question as to whether this proliferation of Internet sites, 24-hour cable news, media watch and now campus watchdogs is positive is a separate issue. Some long for the day when everyone got his/her news from Walter Cronkite. Yet on the other hand, recall that the innovation of the op-ed page by the New York Times was in its day controversial. Only The Onion and perhaps Pravda and the Chinese Evening News have a letters policy that "readers shall have no voice whatsoever and the newspaper shall be solely a one-way conduit of information." In closing, let each site rest on its merits and crescat scientia vita excolatur.