A troubling wind blows across the Academy—a gust of censorship. The perversion of a term like McCarthyism by some residents of the Ivory Tower to make it mean any criticism of any idea whatsoever threatens the right to dissent. Along with other members of Columbians for Academic Freedom—a group of students who have formed on campus to call for students' rights to unfettered debate— I have been attacked for stifling the very thing we're trying to protect. We have also been asked to refrain from public comment about events at Columbia until the ad-hoc committee makes its statement. This essay will be an exception to that rule.
I feel this exception is necessary because this evening, the Columbia ACLU will be hosting a debate on the topic of McCarthyism and the University. Tonight's panel will likely share an opposition to student's academic freedom—the New York Civil Liberties Union makes it clear on its Web site that its official position is that a student is only free to speak "if permitted by the professor."
It is amazing that the NYCLU can claim that our civil rights as students depend on the decision of the party we are criticizing. Are we to pay tuition to Columbia now and donate later while refraining from claiming any semblance of rights? I cannot imagine how a person who would argue that only a graduate degree permits another to have a seat at the table can claim to be a participant in the free market of ideas. Certainly a professor should have the full freedom to say whatever comes to his or her mind, but a line is drawn when that professor utilizes his or her position of power to denigrate or dehumanize a student of this University who directly or indirectly is under the professor's power.
That more students have not joined in the cry for students' rights shows the power of institutional pressures. The whole point of free speech is to disagree with the orthodoxy of the time—to ensure that those with dissenting voices are able to make their claims without fear of reprisal. At Columbia, however, it seems that free speech is only for those people with whom one agrees.
But being a member of an intellectual community means that it is one's responsibility to think twice—and one's duty to encourage others to think twice. Reason and debate should have the ideals of justice and truth at their core. Thus, when we call for a transparent investigation into student claims of abuse and bullying, we do so not because we doubt student testimonies, but because we believe that everyone should be considered innocent until proven guilty. We are saddened that accusations were made public before such review took place, but we recognize that the three years these alleged incidents were pushed aside by the administration would not have come to an end unless it was clear that we would not be silent.
We are willing to give the administration the benefit of the doubt. We hope the University will judge cases of harassment based on legal standards that are already accepted, keep politics out of the decision, and make sure that if a professor is shown to have crossed the line, there will be consequences to their behavior. We hope the University will institute a grievance procedure that will protect faculty and students.
We hope that all students and faculty who care about civil rights will share these hopes and will join to create an environment of academic freedom for all at Columbia. We hope that all members of the community will affirm that no one has the right to deny another's rights. Undoubtedly, there will be those who will ask us what right we have to request anything from the administration and others who will tell us that we should let the adults handle the situation. We would like the administration to recall lessons from McCarthyism—the real period, and not the imagined purge supposedly carried out by students at Columbia. It was during that time that intellectuals learned the real value of unfettered discourse and the importance of academic freedom.