Academic Freedom – Carol Swain, Steven Salaita, Deborah O’Connor, Susan Douglas

Carol Swain is a Vanderbilt University law professor and noted Islamophobe. In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, she wrote a thoroughly nasty column for The Tennessean. Protests and counter protests and accusations of censorship have followed.

I wrote about related issues for The Chronicle of Higher Education a few months back, in the wake of a Florida State professor (Deborah O’Connor) being fired without due process after saying despicable homophobic things. In that piece, I talked about Steven Salaita, and how support for due process in one case means there must also be support for due process in the other.

Of course, principles are hard. People who rallied to O’Connor then immediately turned around and demanded the resignation or firing of University of Michigan professor Susan Douglas, who wrote a column called, “It’s ok to hate Republicans.”

Of course, the next time a group of progressive students get upset at some war criminal speaking at their graduation, those same Republicans who criticized O’Connor will talk about how wimpy US college students are these days (as David Brooks did here).

Here’s my take:

  1. If  you do not extend your principles to those with whom you disagree, you have no principles. I believe in academic freedom and therefore extend it to all of these professors, even the ones whose views disgust me. 
  2. Academic freedom does not mean that there are no words you can say that should come with job loss or sanction. It’s just that the bar is very very high. 
  3. I don’t have enough information on Douglas, Swain, or O’Connor to judge. On the Salaita case, testimony from years of teaching at Virginia Tech suggested that concerns he would be too scary to pro-Israel students were unfounded.
  4. I’m very concerned about the idea that strident opinions make the classroom inhospitable as a general rule. Having strident opinions is what we, as academics, should be doing. That doesn’t mean use the classroom as a pulpit, but I am fearful of the consequences for teaching if we push teachers to be cautious. 
Free speech is hard. It means supporting the right of really nasty people, like Carol Swain, to say really nasty things. 
Here’s the good news. Free speech means we get to talk back.

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