Very much in the news are attempts, glancing and full-fledged, to trim the extravagances of the First Amendment. Sometimes freedom-mongering betrays itself, causing the observer to assume comfortably that a sober integration of free speech in the House of Rights is more or less on its way. But the fight needs pursuit.
The season's headliner was Harvard President Larry Summers. What he said was that he fancied that not as many women as men get on with science and engineering, perhaps because there is a genetic indisposition there, women to science. Knoweth not the fury of liberal faculties, the man who makes judgments that are hostile to truly important orthodoxies, in this case, that there is no difference between men and women.
President Summers apologized more often than weeping willow trees over his presumption, but even this did not spare him formal censure by the faculty of Harvard, which brings to mind the sage who years ago said he'd sooner be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston telephone directory than by the faculty of Harvard.
The scene at Columbia University was slightly different. For once, rights of teachers and professors were being challenged. The complaint had gone out that Columbia was - brace yourself - anti-Semitic. This wasn't just one Jewish student, reacting to one animadversion on Ariel Sharon. It was, to quote a dispatch in the Jerusalem Post, a charge that faculty members in the school's Middle East classes "use their positions to promote anti-Zionist activism, discourage intellectual discourse on the Israeli-Arab conflict and vilify Israeli students. One student recounted a professor telling his class, 'The Palestinian is the new Jew, and the Jew is the new Nazi.' "
Begin by drinking deep of the reassurance of Columbia President Lee Bollinger, who said that it was "simply preposterous to characterize Columbia as anti-Semitic or as having a hostile climate for Jewish students and faculty."
But Mr. Bollinger, who as former president of the University of Michigan is a veteran of the affirmative-action wars, did some hard thinking about academic freedom used as absolute protection for the ventilation of thoughts or prejudices of any kind. Academic freedom was conceived as a shield for researchers, e.g., examining genetic differences between men and women.
One way to put it is that academic freedom was conceived as protecting scholars engaged in scholarly thought, and wild charges of the kind done by such as Ward Churchill (the "technocrats" working in the World Trade Center who died on 9/11 are to be likened to Adolf Eichmann) aren't properly protected by academic freedom.
Mr. Bollinger this week made a further contribution to sobriety when he tackled a comfortable defense of some professors. "We should not accept the argument that we as teachers can do what we want because students are of sufficient good sense to know bias and indoctrination when they see it. This ignores the enormous differential in power between the professor and the student in a classroom setting."
At a non-academic level, the doctrine of the absoluteness of free speech is running into the community that wishes to restrain the incidence of smut on TV. It is wonderfully easy to make fun of spokesmen for such movements. You begin by giving lubricious attention to the amount of time the critics spend staring at bawdy programs. That makes a nice taunting point, makeable, mutatis mutandis, at the expense of district attorneys who spend all their time staring at reports of rape and murder.
A confinement of the First Amendment to civilized standards depends, ultimately, on compartmentalization, some extension of the ratings principle by which, over decades, movies have been hemmed in against sexual and fetishistic exhibitionism. Thought has to be given to the rights of parents who are concerned about psychological damage that can be done to young people staring at adult depravities.
It is interesting, but tells us nothing conclusive, that in the year 2005 one can see on screen, without any thought of interrupting popcorn consumption, scenes which would have been forbidden 30 years ago. These gradations don't accost such interesting questions as whether composure at seeing a rape scene on the screen leads to relative composure at the rise of rape off screen.
The aphorism is that the best way to secure freedom is to practice it. A counter-aphorism would be that the best way to secure freedom is to acknowledge its limitations.