Free Speech for Some

On October 5 the American Association of University Professors issued a statement denouncing criticism of professors opposing the war on terrorism by those who seek to “demonize” them. Often defensive and sometimes quite petty in tone, the statement, written by AAUP General Secretary Mary Burgan, notes that the faculty do not “have a single brain that renders a unified opinion on matters of public policy” and underlines “the necessity, as patriots and professors, [for them] to think and express their views in freedom.”

“Now we are back to our usual habits of analysis, criticism, and scorn,” Burgan writes. “The pile-up of details is not enough; as a rational species, we must push beyond them to imagine causes, motives, remedies.”

Critics of academia might find those three “usual habits” quite telling; where, they might ask, is instruction? What of teaching? More to the point, however, isn’t this a rather ironic point to make at the outset of an official statement decrying analysis, criticism and scorn (or, as Burgan terms them, “frontal assault,” “sideswipes” and demonizing) of what some professors are saying?

One of Burgan’s main items of contentions is that critics supposedly take “the words of any one faculty member … to be the words of all.” Upon reading that, one has to ask, is what she states actually happening? Where?

Readers who aren’t stopped by that rather curious statement of fact are primed for her next whopper: “And so the discourses of academics — passionate as well as cool — have commenced. And so have the voluble reactions of those who believe that thinking out loud in our colleges and universities is so subversive that it ought to be stopped, somehow.” Ah, you see, the critics of these academics don’t want just to engage in analysis, criticism and scorn; they seek to stifle “thinking out loud” on campus because they view it as “subversive.”

This flight of paranoia is extremely hard to reconcile with her first paragraph’s boast that analysis is a usual habit of hers. At least credit Burgan for this: By envisioning herself in the minds of the outside critics and finding — egad! — a most horrible, Orwellian hobgoblin, she has just illustrated her point about imagining causes and motives. If only she were to go one step further and imagine herself a remedy: an aspirin, a laxative, a vacation, or at the very least, a few deep, cleansing breaths.

Burgan’s curious fact-presentation and imaginative hobgoblin-finding lead her to her next main points. “A distrust of intellectuals has always lurked beneath the surface of American popular opinion,” she writes. “Now it has begun to leak out again – either through the frontal assault in the partial reporting by the New York Post of a forum at the City University of New York, or the sideswipes at “campus teach-ins” by a respected columnist like Tom Friedman or others such as John Leo” (note the sideswipe there: Leo is not respected by self-described intellectual Mary Burgan of the AAUP).

Denouncing Americans’ “distrust of intellectuals” is, of course, the comfort zone for academics like Burgan. It’s the panacea of patronization. It allows “us” to make statements like “in the times of crisis, our tolerance of diversity fades” and then proceed to criticize unfazed other people’s reactions to what we say. It also effuses us with the notion that if only that blasted New York Post had fully reported on that forum, then City College lecturer Walter Baum’s comments that “The ultimate responsibility lies with the rulers of this country, the capitalist ruling class of this country” and others’ description of the terrorists as “freedom fighters” and the attack as “the incident” would not have upset anyone because it would have been told in context.

Even the instances verging on hints of censorship that Burgan mentions fail in the light of inquiry. As she notes, “White House press secretary Ari Fleischer withdrew his ominous warning that public people should ‘watch what they say'” – withdrawal should be seen as a victory for free speech. And as for “the comments of some board members of CUNY, and of its chancellor” that she says “should be rethought,” even they were – as she admitted – “accompanied by nods to academic freedom.”

To be sure, some harsh things were said about the professors taking part in that forum. CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein said he had no sympathy for those who make “lame excuses for the attacks,” and trustee Jeffrey Weissenfeld called their behavior “seditious.” And in fact the trustees drafted a resolution condemning faculty hate speech to be voted on in a later meeting (the resolution passed on Oct. 23). This resolution would, in the words of trustee John Calandra, “inform the world that these beliefs are not shared by any of the college’s leadership” and also, in the words of New York Post reporter Andrea Peyser, “send a message to taxpayers who pay the ranting professors’ salaries.” It also would, as Wiessenfeld said, make the point that the participating professors “render ill repute” to CUNY “while recognizing [the professors’] right to be stupid.”

Those harsh words, however, should not come as a surprise to the AAUP or Burgan (especially if she’s capable of cavorting through your gray matter). Professors making harsh public statements should expect harsh words in return, and it is disingenuous for those who habitually engage in criticism and scorn to yelp “Censorship!” when criticism and scorn are heaped upon their public pronouncements.

Freedom of speech protects equally the original speaker engaging in his usual action of scorn and those who respond in kind that the speaker is nuttier than a Planter’s warehouse. Tough turkey for the original speaker if he finds others’ response “harmful” — it’s no concern of either academic freedom or the Constitution.

In short, Doc, if you can’t stand the heat, then stay outta the bitchin’.