Destroying the Village to Save It

Academic Freedom is Part of a
Larger First Amendment Issue

All Americans … need to watch what they say. This is not a time for remarks like that.”

The speaker is White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, shortly after “Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher” was de facto censored when its television underwriters withdrew their support.

Not long after, an editor on the Texas City Sun wrote an opinion piece critical of George W. Bush. The next day, the Sun’s publisher issued a front-page apology and fired him.

“People don’t want to hear that stuff now,” said Jonah Goldberg, an editor at National Review, whose column runs regularly in the Allentown Morning Call and the Express-Times.

And earlier this month in the Chronicle of Higher Education, an article called “Testing Free Speech” notes that some colleges have reacted to September 11 with blood drives and candlelight vigils—and “stunning intolerance” on the campuses of the University of Texas, California State University at Chico, the University of New Mexico, St. Olaf College (Minn.), Orange Coast College (Calif.) and Henry Ford Community College (Mich.). Reprisals against professors who criticized or otherwise countered prevailing opinion have ranged from reprimands and heckling to, in the last case, “suspension with pay,” though it must be added that this professor physically ejected a student from class when the discussion turned into what the Chronicle describes as a “sparring match.”

As many in the Moravian College family are aware, faculty members have spoken their minds about the events of September 11 in several forums, and negative responses have not been slow in coming. But in a letter to the College community, Curtis A. Keim, dean of the faculty, not only upheld the principle of academic freedom but also defended its greater necessity in a time of conflict.

Academic freedom, a specific reading of the freedom of speech clause of the First Amendment, is but one of the civil liberties under pressure, and sometimes actual attack, in the aftermath of last month’s terrorism. The last time it was of such concern was during the McCarthy hearings of 1950-54. But the issue goes back long before that, to a 1940 “statement of principles” by the American Association of University Professors, which reaffirmed a resolution adopted in 1925. To read it in its entirety, visit www.aaup.org/1940stat.

In the three-quarters of a century since then, it has become an article of faith that colleges are, indeed must be, standard-bearers for open discussion and public discourse.

Dean Keim’s letter reminded us of the rights and responsibilities of academic freedom and of the benefits of informed inquiry (and, yes, informed dissent) to the common good.

 “The protected expression of ideas with which we disagree is fundamental to our collective pursuit of truth,” he wrote. “Some unpopular ideas will eventually become widely understood as truthful, and they need time and space to develop, endure scrutiny, and gain support. We should trust that over time untruthful ideas will fail to withstand rigorous academic consideration.

 “There are limits on academic freedom, of course …[It] is granted by society with the expectation of high standards of inquiry, reasoning, and expression. [We] must pursue truth rather than self-interest, and this implies a willingness to listen, to respect others’ opinions, and to change one’s mind.”

That’s the news. Here’s the editorial:

Dean Keim wrote: “In return for the responsible pursuit of truth, society grants faculty … a greater degree of freedom of speech than that guaranteed to all citizens by the Bill of Rights.” This is not quite correct. The language of the First Amendment is unambiguous and inarguable. As upheld by long legal tradition, the same freedom of expression is guaranteed to us all, without exception, from the most venerable professor on the faculty to the janitor who empties the wastebaskets.


In conjunction with Trustees Week at the College, trustees Odell Guyton ’77, Candy Barr Heimbach ’79, and Martin A.Trichon ’70 will join the district attorney of Northampton County, John M. Morganelli ’77, for a discussion of “Civil Liberties in Times of Crisis.” It’s at 4:00 p.m. Thursday, October 25, in Prosser Auditorium.

October 23, 2001

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