(Note: First posted on Rebunk 11-17-04).

Not surprisingly, free speech is one of the main issues that fuels the blogs of academics. Even most of us whose weblogs do not focus on the minutia of academic life occasionally deal with this issue, and others write about it rather extensively. KC Johnson of Brooklyn College is to my mind by far the best of these (see his latest Cliopatria post on this topic here) and Ralph Luker often addresses the issue as well (His most recent Cliopatria free speech entry is here.)

Daniel Drezner, one of the sharpest bloggers on the web (and not just because he went to Williams) goes all meta on us by discussing academic freedom and blogging. In the case he explores, a professor who says some pretty loathsome things about homosexuals (and the post has apparently been erased, so I cannot link to it, bit Drezner gives the gist), but he also shows how Indiana is now experiencing a crisis over whether or not to sponsor blogs. My view is that universities ought not to be doing anything to encroach upon free speech and that using the petty power games of proprietary claims over bandwidth seems pretty thin reed upon which to hang an argument. Lots of crap, offensive and not, ends up on university servers. Unless the university is really willing to limit usage substantially, it seems to me that they will be making political choices. What if conservative students chose to take a professor’s webpage on queer studies as being offensive? That student would to my mind be wrong, but if universities are going to be limiting professor’s web content they really have to police it all unless they are going to be making these content-oriented decisions. I have seen cases where universities have tried to restrict blogging by graduate students when the blog was not even on the university server. These are cases of misguided academic power run amok, little more.

It is not all that surprising that most of these professors are most concerned with academic freedom for the professoriat. This is a vital issue and one that is of rights at the forefront of our concerns. Usually taking a backseat are the interests of students, such as the graduate students I mentioned, who are far more vulnerable than even the most junior professor and for whom the consequences, because of the draconian nature of university administrators with no concern for even a modicum of due process (universities tend to be pretty selective about which Constitutional rights ought to be universal), tend to be much more severe. The University of Indiana professor might lose his IU webspace for the idiocies he prattles. Most students are not so lucky.

Take, for example, this incident at the University of New Hampshire (the flagship institution of my home state). To give the truncated version: in response to frustrations over slow elevators in his dorm, a male student posted (poorly written – odd that this is not the more significant concern of the university) posters that read: “9 out of 10 freshman girls gain 10-15 pounds. But there is something you can do about it. If u live below the 6th floor takes the stairs. Not only will u feel better about yourself but you will also be saving us time and wont be sore on the eyes.” Not clever, but, apparently for the guardians of free speech, offensive to the point of university administrators imposing charges that he was guilty of affirmative action violations, harassment, and disorderly conduct. Read the article. This sort of idiocy would not fly in most of the Granite State, I assure you. Fortunately the student got pretty good representation from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE – their website also has information on the UNH case), a nonprofit group dedicated to protecting freedom of speech on American college campuses. The student had all charges removed, save for one related to academic dishonesty for initially lying about having printed the posters – a question he arguably should not have been asked in the first place.

As professors we have to recognize that our students have rights that are every bit as important to a free society as our own. We need to advocate for them, irrespective of our views on the content of the speech they exercise. Too much of the campus free speech debate seems only to want to protect a certain kind of speech. This is intellectually, morally, and ethically unjustifiable. But until professors show a concern for all speech, and not just that which they hold sacred, everyone’s rights will be in jeopardy.

Print  •  Email