Union Says Free Speech Threatened on College Campuses

July 7, 2008 - 8:19 PM

(CNSNews.com) - The union representing the nation's college and university professors is worried that the teachers are being prevented from speaking their minds in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"There is always the possibility that some will think that criticism should not be tolerated, [and] that one should muffle one's complaints or concerns for the sake of pulling together to deal with a serious problem or common enemy, for example," said Jonathan Knight, associate secretary of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). The organization represents 45,000 professors and teaching assistants around the country.

Knight said the AAUP has reaffirmed its 1997 statement of academic freedom in the light of fallout from the terrorist attacks

"On a campus that is free and open, no idea can be banned or forbidden," the 1997 AAUP statement proclaims.

According to Knight, the statement is relevant because the tolerance of divergent and unpopular points of view is, "the hallmark of an academic institution."

"If you don't have academic freedom, you don't have colleges and universities as they have evolved in this country, and our society would whither," he said.

The AAUP believes professors should stand up for their academic freedom, should it be challenged, so colleges and universities will remain places of learning and dialogue.

"If the occasion arises, faculty should remind their colleagues, students, and the administration, and the public, that the college and university is the most important place in our society where free ideas should flourish, even ideas with which we disagree strongly," Knight said.

Knight said numerous academics across the country have had their academic freedom jeopardized since the terror attacks.

He raised the case of Dr. Richard Berthold, a history professor at the University of New Mexico who praised the terrorist attack against the Pentagon.

Dr. Beulah Woodfin, chairwoman of AAUP's chapter at the University of New Mexico describes what is alleged to have occurred, "It is alleged that he said to a class on September 11, that... 'anybody who would bomb the Pentagon would get my vote,' and there are varying stories about whether he said it from the podium or in casual comments to students."

Woodfin said severe sanctions are being considered against Berthold as a direct consequence of this remark. She believes the threatened sanctions against Berthold are a direct threat to academic freedom at her institution because it has made many faculty members uneasy.

"It is alarming," Woodfin said.

"The provost has announced that he wants to suspend Berthold for the spring semester," she said. "That is what is particularly alarming, because taking a faculty member out of the classroom is perhaps the most severe type of sanction that is possible.

"Berthold indicated that he would accept a sanction, but being suspended for a semester is beyond what he has indicated that he would be willing to accept," she said.

According to Woodfin, the suspension would be the most severe penalty handed out to a faculty member during her 34 years of teaching at the University of New Mexico.

A conservative watchdog of American colleges and universities agrees with AAUP that academic freedom has been jeopardized following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but believes a different group of individuals is being threatened.

"Academic freedom is being threatened, but I think that the people that are being threatened are professors who are expressing patriotic sentiments," said Dan Flynn, executive director of Accuracy in Academia. "The campuses are very free and tolerant places for people who are anti-American, but for people who are patriotic, they are about as tolerant as... Islamabad or Baghdad."

Flynn considers the banning of student displays of the American flag at Lehigh University, Marquette University, Arizona State University, and Texas A&M as examples of how patriotic sentiments have been attacked on campuses across the country since Sept. 11.

"Quite clearly, students, administrators, and professors are very free on the campuses to bash America," he said. "It's the students, professors, and administrators who want to express their patriotism - it's them -- they have a hard time of getting their ideas across.

"They are facing resistance from administrators, from professors, [and] from other students," Flynn said. "It's a complete joke on the part of the AAUP to say... in the wake of September 11, those professors are having trouble expressing anti-American sentiments because the reality on campus is that anyone who expresses patriotism... have a difficult time putting forth their ideas.

"The dominant perspective on campus is to have sympathy for the other side," he said.

Marda Dunsky, an assistant professor of journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. does not believe American academia has reached the point where administrators tell professors what they can and cannot teach.

"I would be very surprised if we get to a point in this country where the speech of college professors, academics, is going to be enjoined, or we come to a situation of prior restraint [and] punishment by university administrations," Dunsky said. "I can't foresee that, but then again we have no idea about what is going to happen," with regard to future terror attacks.

"I think that there will be a heightened sensitivity to these things, and I think where this will come to bear, is in discussions between faculty and students," she said. "My impression is that university administrations will be very, very slow to impose any kind of restrictions."