Monday, August 13, 2007

On Academic Freedom

What follows is an adaptation from a number of source pieces going back to mid-September 2001, and relies especially closely on a missive I received from Z-net at the time. I used this material to construct an Op-Ed piece for my Marist College radio show with Igor Volsky sometime in 2005. I think the issues addressed here are daily becoming ever more urgently relevant in this outrageously lawless period of the imperial Bush Presidency.

Freedom can be definied (in part) as follows: The absence of necessity, coercion or constraint in choice of action. Academic freedom participates in this definition by means of the protection of free speech in the U.S. Bill of Rights. This issue is by no means only theoretical or academic. It centrally relates to the everyday struggle to practice democracy in America. The people have a duty to insist that our leaders foster freedom, liberty, and democracy.

The idea that self-government is predicated on free speech is a brilliant and powerful one. The protection of free speech is the most noteworthy and exalted contribution to this American experiment in democracy--an experiment that is now gravely threatened by the far right, thus spurring a burgeoning movement to impeach Attorney General Gonzales, President Bush, and Vice President Cheney.

The day the principle of free speech is officially and permanently revoked is the day the experiment in self-government is officially over.

I understand that free speech is never absolute, even in the university with regard to the issue of academic freedom. For example, in the broader society no doctor has the freedom to prescribe the wrong medicine on purpose or to give patients deadly verbal advice. Nobody has the right to threaten someone with bodily harm or to commit fraud. Or teach that six million Jews committed suicide in Europe in the 1940s.

In the university context of academic freedom, to take two admittedly extreme examples, no biology professor can teach that the moon is alive, nor can a psychology professor argue that adult sex with small children is acceptable. Such speech is clearly irresponsible.

In American Republican Democracy free speech was institutionalized not to protect all speech, but important speech--the speech most likely to be suppressed by authoritarian elites precisely because it informed the people and offered a perspective unpopular to these elites. The most important point to keep in mind in this conection is that speech always takes place in a context of power relations.

Let's take the notorious Ward Churchill case. Churchill is the University of Colorado Professor of Anthropology and Ethnic Studies who lost his position as Chairman of the Ethnic Studies Department, and who was recently fired outright through the collusive action of the Colorado Legislature and Governor, because of the controversy connected with his post-9/11 essay, "The Chickens Come Home to Roost."

This is Churchill's thesis: The long history of U.S. policies and actions in the world has been aimed at domination and exploitation--including genocidal campaigns against indigenous people at this country's founding all the way to post-World War Two assaults on people of the Third World. These policies have resulted in the killing and injuring of millions of people and have bred a passion for revenge that was bound to blow back on U.S. society. And this is what happened on 9/11. Churchill is saying, above all else, that we must admit and study our violent imperialistic history and these connections if we want to stop further crimes committed either by the U.S. or against the U.S.

In my opinion Ward Churchill may have been guilty of excessive inflammatory rhetoric in his piece, but not of false statements of fact. And we all know that most politicians are guilty of both (particularly endemic to the Bush White House). I think Churchill is in fact correct on the central issue of his much maligned piece.

But whether one agrees with Churchill's particular argument or not, in my opinion the chief function of scholars in the Liberal Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences in the university is to remind the social order of its broken promises, and to insist that they be kept. And the biggest broken promise in U.S. history is the betrayal of fully democratic processes in America and the world, and the failure so far in our history to realize the promise of individual liberty in the context of relative equality of existence for all.

Free speech in all its forms is essential for the struggle of the vast majority against unaccountable elite power at all institutional levels of society; and for those who advocate for this majority to develop our ideas and strategies effectively so as to build solidarity between the professorial enclave in the university and the great mass of the population.

In fact the university is virtually the last remaining social space whre people have the right--indeed, the obligation--to speak freely. Everywhere else in society there is the growing chilling effect of an etiquette that says it is rude or even dangerous to speak of politics and religion. There is a dramatic narrowing of domains for public conversation and debate. So I am committed as a matter of ethical principle to opposing any attempts to weaken academic speech on American campuses.

I am a tenured professor. Tenured academics are a very rare and privileged group. Untenured social critics among the professoriat often shut up or never make it to tenure. I am realistic and know that for untenured faculty, their jobs are always potentially in jeopardy, and sadly, they therefore are obliged to mind what they say until their job security is assured. The issue of course, as always, is power.

By the time many professors earn tenure they too often have become cowed celebrants of the academic status quo, so used to being silent in order to survive that their ability to speak up, even in self-protection, has often left them. Still, we must resist any attempts to severely limit or eliminate tenure, because tenure is meant to guarantee that the professoriat can freely engage in controversial but responsible speech. Of course tenure never guarantees lifetime employment, but only the ability to be secure from capricious termination for one's views (allegedly, but don't ask Ward Churchill).

But beyond the issue of tenure, every constituent of the university, whether faculty, staff, or students, ought to have their right to free speech affirmed and legitimated as a fundamental right of citizenship. We should be prepared to fight, if necessary, to maintain our right to speak freely.

No comments: