The Fight for Freedom at AHA

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Do the letters AHA now stand (in the words of Robert Shibley) for American Hypocrites Association, rather than American Historical Association? Apparently they do. In January, the members rejected a resolution to oppose all attacks on academic freedom, whether from the Right or from the Left. Instead, they passed a weaker resolution that selectively condemned only threats coming from the Right. But it is not over yet. I participated in this controversy as part of a three-man libertarian, left, and right coalition for academic freedom. The other members of the coalition were Ralph Luker, the head of the Cliopatria blog at the History News Network, and Robert K.C. Johnson, a historian at Brooklyn College.

In this first foray in the fight for academic freedom, we made some valuable inroads. We may yet have the last word.

Our chances were slim and we knew it. Also, we had only a few weeks to prepare. Not until December did we learn that the AHA business meeting would consider a resolution to oppose David Horowitz’s Academic Bill of Rights (ABOR). A leftist in the 1960s, Horowitz is now a militant activist for conservative causes. He founded the Center for the Study of Popular Culture in Los Angeles and publishes FrontPage Magazine. Many of the provisions of Horowitz’s ABOR seem laudable, at least on first scrutiny. It seeks to prohibit faculty from being hired on the basis of their political or religious beliefs. It requires that faculty expose students to diverse perspectives and, according to Horowitz, prohibits raising political issues in class that are outside the course subject matter. This provision opens the door for a student to file a complaint by making a charge of “indoctrination.”

Whatever the intentions of the drafters, the ABOR has already unleashed forces that seek to stifle free and open debate on campus. In Florida, for example, Rep. Dennis Baxley says that his version of the ABOR would enable students to sue professors who do not teach Intelligent Design (ID). Horowitz denies that the ABOR would have this effect, but in doing so he raises additional, troubling questions. His bill does not mandate ID, he says,.because it reserves special protection only for ideas within “the spectrum of significant scholarly opinion.” This rationale provides little reassurance to libertarians, especially if they are antiwar or anarchist, with views falling well outside that spectrum.

The most serious danger pos~dby th~ABOR, however, is that it could snuff out all controversial discussion in the classroom. A campus governed by the ABOR would present professors with a dilemma: either play it safe or risk their jobs by saying something that might offend an overly sensitive student. As Jesse Walker of Reason has argued, the result is a “chilling effect” that makes the ABOR analogous to the now-defunct Fairness Doctrine in broadcasting.

Equally striking are the parallels between the ABOR and current campus speech codes, even though support for these codes comes overwhelmingly from the academic left. They exist on most campuses in the United States. If literally enforced, many would suppress nearly all controversial, and much noncontroversial, campus speech.

For example, Brown University prohibits “verbal behavior,” whether “intentional or unintentional,” that leads to “feelings of impotence, anger, or disenfranchisement.” Colby College proscribes words that cause a “vague sense of danger” or threaten loss of “self-esteem.” In 2004, the faculty senate of the University of Alabama proposed sweeping rules denying university funds for “any behavior which demeans or reduces an individual based on group affiliation or personal characteristics, or which promotes hate or discrimination, in any approved University program or activity.” Would this all-inclusive language apply to Alabama fans who heckle Auburn players or students at football games? It is hard to see why it would not.

When campus administrators enforce speech codes and related rules, conservatives and libertarians often bear the brunt of the attack. In January 2003, for example, California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly) subjected Steve Hinkle, the president of the College Republican Club, to a grueling seven-hour hearing after a student accused him of “offensive” speech. Hinkle had done nothing more than attempt to post a flier in the school’s multicultural center advertising a speech by Mason Weaver, a black conservative and author of “It’s OK to Leave the Plantation.” Cal Poly pronounced Hinkle guilty of “disruption of a campus event” and commanded that he write a letter of apology.

A year before the Ward Churchill imbroglio, the University of Colorado banned an “affirmative action bake sale” by College Republicans who sold cookies at “suggested” lower prices to racial minorities. Even as the AHA

Rep. Baxley’s version of the Academic Bill of Rights would enable students to sue professors who do not teach Intelligent Design.

 

met in its business meeting, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro was pursuing the charge of “violation of Respect” against two students for demonstrating outside a small limited “free speech zone.” Ironically, the students were protesting against the university’s policy of designated speech zones!

Just as troubling is the case of Hans-Hermann Hoppe, a professor of economics at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas (UNLV). In 2004, a student complained that Hoppe’s assertion in a lecture that homosexuals were more likely to have higher time preferences (that is, to favor present-day consumption over long-term savings and investment) constituted hate speech. In February 2005, UNLV Provost Raymond W. Alden III sent Hoppe a “letter of instruction” that announced a reprimand and suspension without pay for a week for creating a “hostile learning environment.”

Alden stated that Hoppe’s statements were improper because they “were not supported by peer-reviewed academic literature” and “not qualified as opinions, theories without experimental/ statistical support.” The fallacies of such a standard are obvious, or at least should be obvious.

The bill would present professors with a dilemma: either play it safe or risk their jobs by saying something that might offend an overly sensitive student.

 

What professor can claim (at least with a straight face) that he has not violated this peer-review rule in lecture, not just once but many times?

While academic freedom eventually triumphed in most of these cases, it was only because outside organizations, especially the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), stirred up adverse publicity or threatened lawsuits. In the meantime, the college administrators in question had displayed to the world an appalling disdain for free speech, while all too many faculty, by not speaking out, showed either failure of nerve or outright complicity in injustice.

It is impossible to escape the conclusion that these attitudes can be traced, at least in part, to the fact that the victims of repression were often conservatives or libertarians. But the Right will probably prove no better at protecting liberty if it is ever given the same power. As long as so many continue to follow the credo of “free speech for me, but not for thee,” prospects for academic freedom are bleak.

With all this in mind, we began our campaign to sway the AHA by making a principled private appeal to the sponsors of the anti-ABOR resolution. We urged them to add a friendly amendment condemning speech codes. We expected to be rebuffed but retained some hope. Because Luker and I are members of Historians Against the War (HAW), the chief group behind the anti-ABOR resolution, it was easier (or seemed easier) for us to make the case that a consistent stand would help the antiwar movement win support from conservatives and libertarians. We also warned that if HAWand the AHA remained silent on speech codes, the effect would give Horowitz an unintended victory by allowing him to triumphantly charge us with hypocrisy and selectivity. On the other hand, if the AHA upheld academic freedom for everyone, we predicted that Horowitz, not the members of the AHA, would be rendered speechless.

The sponsors were not buying it. They refused to compromise. Meanwhile, Horowitz began to criticize our resolution for fostering “complete anarchy” on campus, giving aid and comfort to Ward Churchill and others on the Left who try to indoctrinate. Now almost everything was going according to expectation. We were smoking out critics on both the Left and the Right and, to a limited extent, were making them confront uncomfortable truths. Also, FIRE, the most consistent organizational champion of academic freedom today, was highly supportive of our cause and provided valuable publicity.

It was time to take it up a notch. The three of us drafted a substitute to the anti-ABOR resolution, proposing that the AHA oppose the ABOR and campus speech codes as “the two leading threats to academic freedom today.”

Just prior to the final showdown, we pushed our substitute at the meeting of Historians Against the War. We lost overwhelmingly. The most favorable .development was the failure of our opponents to defend speech codes per se. Their

As long as so many continue to follow the credo of “free speech for me, but not for thee,” prospects for academic freedom are bleak.

 

favorite retorts were almost entirely practical: “this is not the right time,” “speech codes are an entirely different issue,” “the ABOR presents a bigger threat,” “your wording is not specific enough,” etc. Some claimed that we were beating a dead horse because the courts had almost always struck down speech codes. This contention is misleading. While the courts have generally ruled against the .codes, a visit to FIRE’s website will confirm that they continue to present a clear threat to academic freedom.

The AHA business meeting was more of the same, although we did pick up a few allies. While the AHA officers bent over backward to be fair to us, more than seven out of ten of the members voted down our substitute – despite the fact that, as in the HAW meeting, not a single opponent stood up to make the case for speech codes. When it was over, the AHA meeting unanimously approved the anti- ABOR resolution. Although we regarded that resolution as weak and overly selective, we voted with the majority.

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Was it all worth it? It was not a pleasant experience to be beaten at every turn, but the answer is yes. While we have lost for the time being, we seem to be on the offensive in the arena of ideas. The failure of anyone at the convention to go on record in favor of speech codes was especially encouraging. Several of our opponents even came up to us after the meeting to promise their support for a resolution condemn- ing the codes at AHA’s next convention. We have our doubts but intend to take them up on their offer.

The most valuable lesson of this experience is that standing on principle can send a powerful message about the importance of academic freedom and win unanticipated friends for freedom’s cause.

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