Gagged by the flag and other patriot games

January 18, 2002

Stephen Phillips reports how the treatment of critics of the US has sparked rows over academic freedom.

Catherine Lutz recalls encountering many diverse campus viewpoints in the wake of September 11 that were not reflected in most media coverage at the time. "Everyone on TV was talking about anger, retribution and defence, but students had varieties of opinions that suggested something other than war could result," says Lutz, an anthropology professor at the University of North Carolina and opponent of United States military action.

On the strength of such sentiment, she helped organise a teach-in at the university's Chapel Hill campus to hear from people espousing an alternative to war. The event, staged just days after September 11, was a hit, attracting 700 faculty members and students. However, Lutz and her colleagues were unprepared for the ensuing backlash.

FrontpageMagazine.com, the online magazine of conservative media pundit David Horowitz, ran a story headlined: "America's enemies rally at UNC-Chapel Hill." Underneath, readers were invited to "tell the good folks at UNC-Chapel Hill what you think of their decision to allow anti-American rallies on their state-supported campus".

They did. Chancellor James Moeser was inundated with irate phone calls and Lutz and colleagues were sent death threats and abusive messages. Lutz says she quickly got over her initial alarm, adding that she also received many expressions of support and is grateful to Moeser for standing by his staff.

Her experience, however, is far from unusual. Academics deviating from the official US line have been baited by talk radio hosts and reviled in newspaper editorials.

Meanwhile, the influential conservative American Council of Trustees and Alumni, chaired by Lynne Cheney, wife of the vice-president, has denounced campus "blame America first" sentiment. In a recent report, Defending Civilisation : How our Universities Are Failing America and What Can Be Done about It , the citizens rallying behind war are compared with "professors across the country [sponsoring] teach-ins that typically ranged from moral equivocation to explicit condemnation of America".

The report, which won a supportive editorial in the Washington Post , itemises 115 utterances or campus incidents that it says highlight dissonance between the ivory towers' and the public's response to September 11.

Co-author Anne Neal says the ACTA stands behind the "rights of professors to speak their minds" but adds "academic freedom does not mean freedom from criticism".

Neglect of western civilisation, particularly American history, which is usurped on curriculums by a "smorgasbord of narrow, trendy courses", is fostering a lack of appreciation for the founding ideals of the US, she adds. And campus orthodoxy against military action is drowning out other voices. "In one case a student felt intimidated and didn't feel comfortable speaking in a different fashion from lecturers," Neal says.

"Universities should be places where ideas are openly exchanged and presented with balance. Our examples suggest that students are not hearing both sides of the argument."

Neal denies seeking censorship, but says "parents and taxpayers have a right to know what they are paying $30,000 a year for students to hear".

Lutz, however, rejects this argument. "Criticism that public universities shouldn't voice an opinion because they are living off the taxpayer is based on a consumerist view of the citizen. That consumers don't have the birthright to (express their opinion) goes right to the heart of the way US democracy belongs to the highest bidder.

"My job description is to speak the truth as I see it, not to voice opinions that the people who pay the bills would like to hear," Lutz says.

Stanley Fish, dean of the college of liberal arts and sciences at the University of Illinois, Chicago, and author of The Trouble with Principle , offers a more circumscribed view of academic freedom. "The philosophical view of academic freedom - the autonomy of the individual, the market of ideas and freedom from oppression - ignores the responsibilities taken on when you accept a salary from an institution," he says.

"I prefer (to) view academic freedom as a guild concept, that you accept responsibility for a job and in return are given the space and freedom to do it."

Fish brands the ACTA report "shameless". He says: "It was an attempt by an organisation known to have strong connections with one of the most influential persons in the US to bully university professors into not speaking out."

But most post-September 11 challenges to academic freedom have come from within - and it is these that most crystallise the debate over the trade-off between academic freedom and responsibilities.

Thor Halvorssen, executive director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, says his group has seen more than 250 complaints charging college administrations with trammelling academic freedom since the attacks, compared with the 120 it would normally expect over such a period.

Cases straddle the political spectrum. In one incident, politics professor Ken Hearlson was suspended by Orange Coast College, Los Angeles, in mid-September after allegations by Muslim students that he insulted them. Hearlson, who describes himself as a "conservative Christian", denied the charges, claiming he accused Muslims in general of hypocrisy for condemning the attacks on September 11 yet praising attacks against Israel in order to provoke a discussion.

An independent probe cleared Hearlson of "most of the allegations made by the Muslim students", and he has been reinstated. But he says he received a written reprimand from the college warning him off raising the issue again. Some colleagues were alarmed that the college short-circuited due process for investigating complaints by summarily putting Hearlson on paid leave. Others signed a petition.

For Fish, the case hinges on whether Hearlson's comments were a legitimate pedagogical ploy. This could not be claimed by University of New Mexico history professor Richard Berthold, who was publicly vilified and suspended for quipping: "Anyone who can blow the Pentagon up gets my vote".

Berthold, since reinstated with a reprimand, apologised, acknowledging his comment was crass, but invoked his right to free speech under the American constitution.

In another incident, Jonnie Hargis, a librarian at the University of California, Los Angeles, was suspended for a week in September after replying to a patriotic email by taking issue with US arming of an "apartheid state called Israel responsible for thousands of deaths of Palestinians". His email was deemed to "contribute to a hostile and threatening environment" for colleagues with "ethnic, religious and family ties to Israel".

Striking back, more than 3,000 US academics have signed a petition protesting against a "campaign of intimidation by pro-war media and college administrators" and hope to publish it in a high-profile publication.

The irony, say conservative pundits, is that the left, in its previous zeal to impose campus speech codes, may have contributed to its own censure post-September 11.

"They've been hoisted by their own petard," Halvorssen says. Verbal behaviour codes at US colleges have been exerting a chilling effect on conservatives for the past 15 years, he adds.

Fish dismisses this as the "affirmative action for conservatives argument". Still, he laments that the currency of principles such as freedom of speech has become debased by their use as "stalking horses for political agendas".

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