Recent controversies over academic freedom have been conflated with free speech concerns, so the two concepts must first be distinguished. The First Amendment has never conferred an absolute, limitless right to say or do anything. Its central function is to protect citizens against prosecution for speech, not to guarantee every seditious, abusive wingnut the right to a taxpayer-subsidized university job. In contrast, academic freedom concerns the right of free inquiry into questions that expand the fund of human knowledge, a goal that has been all but erased from the humanities and social sciences.
Over the last several months, for example, members of the faculty at Columbia University's Middle East Institute have come under scrutiny for intimidating Jewish students, promoting hatred of America and Israel and supporting Islamic terrorism. In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, Prof. Hamid Dabashi said CNN should be held accountable for "war crimes" for their one-sided coverage, and expressed doubts about the existence of al-Qaida. Prof. Rashid Khalidi admonished the media to drop its "hysteria about suicide bombers." Prof. Joseph Massad declared that militant Islamic violence results from "U.S. imperialist aggression."
Even noted liberal Alan Dershowitz has rebuked Columbia's faculty and administration for tolerating an atmosphere on campus that promotes hatred of Israel. "I have never seen a university with as much faculty silence," he said. Meanwhile, DePaul University Prof. Thomas Klocek was suspended without a hearing last fall because his statement that Palestinians are ethnically Jordanians and Egyptians offended some Muslim students. Unlike his Columbia cohorts, he made these comments at a student activities fair, not to a captive audience in his classroom.
Furthermore, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are reported to have provided funding to Columbia's Middle East studies department. So Columbia's troubles are less an issue of academic freedom than of hostile states paying U.S. institutions to parrot their propaganda. Others, however, are content to do so without foreign backing.
University of Colorado Prof. Ward Churchill, ethnic studies, was recently launched into the spotlight by an essay he wrote shortly after Sept. 11, in which he characterized the victims as "little Eichmanns" who deserved it. In a speech in Seattle in August 2003, he exhorted listeners to engage in terrorism, asking, "Why did it take a bunch of Arabs to do what you all should have done a long time ago?" He has trained members of the Weather Underground to make bombs and fire weapons, and violated the travel ban to seek "diplomatic support" from Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi. Academic freedom surely does not include the right to plot against the U.S. government.
Other like-minded extremists envision "a more repressive government, Jewish power becoming unbearable, the neo-con empire crumbling," and see many groups uniting to destroy Big Brother. After Sept. 11, another remarked that "anyone willing to drive a plane into a building to kill Jews is all right by me." Professors? Nope. Try Tom Metzger, leader of the White Aryan Resistance and Billy Roper, of the National Alliance. If you think a society should never make judgments about the limits of extreme speech, you agree with white supremacist David Duke, who made this argument in support of Ward Churchill.
Oliver Wendell Holmes' "marketplace of ideas" has been etched into First Amendment jurisprudence, so that the American polity has abdicated judgment in favor of absolutism. Former Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork argues that this concept is flawed by the assumption of complete human rationality. "An economic market imposes a discipline that the marketplace of ideas does not. A producer of shoddy goods will soon find that consumers turn elsewhere, while shoddy ideas may be sold indefinitely, as Nazism and communism [and Islamism] demonstrate." We like to think that truth is a superior good that ultimately prevails on its own strength, but it often drowns in a sea of conspiracy theory.
Meanwhile, "enlightened" defenders of terrorists and extremists delicately skirt the dead elephant in the middle of the room, namely, the effective blacklist against conservative scholars. Sure, a handful of older, tenured professors remain, and a few younger ones manage to get hired anew, typically in places like Georgia and Oklahoma. But the aggregate effect has been to narrow the spectrum of permissible debate on campus -- or, more accurately, to shift it so far left, it's converging with the extreme right.
It's an interesting contradiction that the level of scrutiny and accountability academics demand from the military and corporations somehow isn't applicable to their own institutions. Those who most abuse academic freedom are the same ones who tend to reject the idea that there are any other rights at stake. What about the right of students to be free from harassment by professors in a position of authority, or the right to dissent? But the academy's increasingly radical political mission has eclipsed these concerns in favor of a profoundly anti-intellectual orthodoxy. What used to be the goals of a university education -- the search for truth and advancing the scope of human knowledge -- have all but disappeared, along with the rights of students to seek them.
Sara Townsley is a graduate student in BMCB.