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Fraying of Academic Freedom

September 11, 2006

The start of the academic year -- in part because it coincides with the fifth anniversary of 9/11 -- is being marked by numerous debates over academic freedom. Over the last few days:

  • Brigham Young University has placed a physics professor on paid leave, taking away the two courses he had just started teaching, because of his statements that explosives, not planes, led to the collapse of the World Trade Center's two towers.
  • The University of Southern Maine shut down an art exhibit featuring the work of a man, convicted of killing a New Jersey state trooper, who portrays himself as a political prisoner. Police groups in New Jersey and Maine condemned the exhibit and were planning to organize protests.
  • Harvard University faced criticism from the governor of Massachusetts over a speech Sunday by Mohammed Khatami, the former president of Iran. About 200 students protested outside the speech -- although many of the students differed from the governor and said it was appropriate for the event to take place.
  • Concordia University, in Montreal, is preparing to play host to a book reading by one of its graduate students today, about a novel set at the university. Concordia's earlier rejection of his request to hold the event at the university -- which officials say was a mistake and the author says was a violation of academic freedom -- has set off a furor over free speech.

9/11 Doubter at Brigham Young

Scholars who endorse dissenting views about 9/11 have been creating numerous controversies in recent weeks. Both the University of Wisconsin at Madison and the University of New Hampshire have resisted calls that they remove from their classrooms scholars who believe that the United States set off the events of 9/11. In both of those cases, numerous politicians said that the instructors involved were not fit to teach, but the universities said that removing them for their views would violate principles of academic freedom.

At Brigham Young, however, the university has placed Steven E. Jones on paid leave, and assigned other professors to teach the two physics courses he started this semester. A statement from the university said, in its entirety: "Physics professor Steven Jones has made numerous statements about the collapse of the World Trade Center. BYU has repeatedly said that it does not endorse assertions made by individual faculty. We are, however, concerned about the increasingly speculative and accusatory nature of these statements by Dr. Jones. Furthermore, BYU remains concerned that Dr. Jones' work on this topic has not been published in appropriate scientific venues. Owing to these issues, as well as others, the university has placed Dr. Jones on leave while we continue to review these matters."

Although Jones did not respond to phone calls or e-mail seeking his views, he has published his papers about the World Trade Center on the Web site of a group called Scholars for 9/11 Truth.

Jones has taught at Brigham Young since 1985 and has "continuing status," which is in some ways equivalent to tenure, and carries with it the "expectation" that a professor will continue to hold a position. Carri Jenkins, a spokeswoman for the university, said that Jones was regarded as "a good teacher" and that there had been no complaints about his raising 9/11-related issues in class. She said that Jones did not discuss his views on 9/11 in class, except when answering questions they posed to him after hearing elsewhere about his opinions. She said that while he is on paid leave, he will be permitted to do research on campus "in his field of study."

Asked whether removing a professor from the classroom for views expressed elsewhere was appropriate, she said that Brigham Young was "committed to academic freedom," but that the statements Jones made about 9/11 were different because they were not made in peer-reviewed academic journals. "Faculty are expected to submit their ideas to peer review that can be debated by experts," she said. Asked if this means Brigham Young professors cannot expect academic freedom protections when they write op-eds or speak at rallies or express their views anywhere but peer-reviewed journals, she repeated that Brigham Young supports academic freedom.

The American Association of University Professors censured Brigham Young for violations of academic freedom in 1998, saying that infringements on academic freedom were "distressingly common," and the university has remained on the association's censure list ever since.

Jonathan Knight, director of the Department of Academic Freedom and Governance at the AAUP, called Brigham Young's actions against Jones "indefensible," adding that academic freedom "has long been recognized to include the freedom to speak out in a public forum without fear of retaliation." The idea that a professor whose classroom conduct hasn't been called into question can be relieved of his classroom duties "cannot be accepted under any meaningful concept of academic freedom."

Knight scoffed at Brigham Young's statement that Jones was not protected for statements that had not been subject to peer review. He noted that professors at Brigham Young, like professors everywhere, speak out all the time without the benefit of peer review.

Art Exhibit Shut Down at Southern Maine

At the University of Southern Maine, President Richard L. Pattenaude on Friday announced that he was shutting down -- that day, and before the exhibit even had its official opening -- a display of art by Tom Manning, who has been convicted in the murder of a New Jersey state trooper and who was implicated in numerous bombings while he was a member of a radical underground group known as the United Freedom Front or the Ohio 7, which justified its acts as "resistance to America's steady progress toward fascism."

The exhibit, "Can't Jail the Spirit: Art by 'Political Prisoner' Tom Manning and Others," was organized by a Portland group and also included artwork by some Southern Maine students. When the exhibit opened a week ago, police groups in Maine and New Jersey denounced the organizers for glamorizing a cop killer and bombarded Southern Maine officials with calls and e-mail. This week, protests were scheduled and the widow of the New Jersey trooper whom Manning killed was planning to travel to Portland for the protests. Donna Lamonaco told Maine journalists that "my husband's honor is being spit upon."

Pattenaude's statement cited two reasons for shutting down the exhibit. First, he said that "the exhibit itself, and the purpose behind it, have become misunderstood and needlessly divisive. What was to be a forum has become a battleground. Academic freedom is a precious part of university culture but it is not being served by the current situation." Second, he said, "I've become alarmed about the increasingly intense criticisms leveled at this university and members of our staff, some of whom feel threatened. Our people have acted in good faith, but significant mistakes were made, and lessons have been learned. We just did not do our homework."

As part of the exhibit, the university had scheduled a forum in October to discuss political prisoners and dissent, and Pattenaude said that that forum would take place, but that he was asking the Faculty Senate to help plan the event to assure full and open discussion. Pattenaude noted that the exhibit included a statement from an art professor noting that the university did not endorse Manning's views or condone his acts. But at the same time, Pattenaude said that the university did not fully understand the context of the exhibit. "I want to apologize to the people of Maine and elsewhere for the fact that we did not understand earlier the criminal acts associated with this exhibit, nor the sense of outrage and depth of personal pain they generated," he said.

Organizers of the exhibit could not be reached, but several students involved attended Pattenaude's announcement Friday and said that he was censoring ideas. Press reports said that students carried signs saying "USM Suppresses Free Speech."

Faculty reaction was more measured. Michael Shaughnessy, an art professor, said that he reluctantly found himself agreeing with the decision to shut the exhibit. "It has gotten so out of hand and so far away from the intent that this seemed necessary," he said.

Protests Over Khatami Speech at Harvard

A speech at Harvard Sunday by Khatami, the former president of Iran, set off a political debate on the campus and in the Boston area -- with Khatami's critics divided between those who said the university had no business inviting him and those who said it was appropriate for him to be invited, but that he should still face protests.

On Sunday, about 200 students protested the speech, and there were no reports of disruption of the event, one of a series of appearances by Khatami in the United States.

Harvard frequently attracts high profile and controversial foreign figures -- and Massachusetts typically helps with security. But last week, Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican who is considering a presidential bid, barred state agencies from providing the police escort that someone like Khatami would normally receive. (Local police filled in.) Romney called Khatmi's appearance "a disgrace to the memory of all Americans who have lost their lives at the hands of extremists, especially on the eve of the five-year anniversary of 9/11."

Romney outlined a long list of ways Khatami's government supported terrorism and violated basic concepts of civil rights. Harvard officials defended the need for the university to be open to talk about Khatami's record and to promote dialogue. Many experts on Iran also disputed Romney's analysis of the country, noting that Khatami was seen as a reformer and that his power was much more limited than the title of president may suggest.

Student groups that organized protests included students focused on Iranian human rights and a bipartisan coalition of Harvard's Democratic and Republican organizations. Unlike Governor Romney, however, the student groups said that they were protesting to encourage tough questioning of Khatami and to draw attention to abuses in Iran. They said that they were not trying to prevent the event from taking place, and they said it was appropriate for Harvard to provide a forum.

"Only the strength of our American traditions of freedom, open debate, and democracy will allow us to win the hearts and minds of reformers throughout the Muslim world and provide an alternative to Islamic fundamentalism," said the statement from Harvard Democrats backing the protest. "We believe Sunday's event with President Khatami will be a display of American strength -- an important example to the rest of the world of the American tradition of free speech."

Censorship or Administrative Mistake at Concordia?

Montreal's Concordia University is no stranger to debates about free speech. While the campus has been calmer of late, a few years back the university witnessed a period of nearly constant protests and tension between Jewish and Arab students. In 2002, following violent protests that prevented Benjamin Netanyahu, former prime minister of Israel from speaking on the campus, the university went so far as to impose a moratorium -- lifted after a few months -- on any meetings or events related to the Middle East.

The moratorium led some to question the university's commitment to free speech, while others praised the measure as necessary to restore order. With memory of that debate still very much alive among Canadian intellectuals, many have been concerned by reports in the last two weeks that a graduate student at Concordia was being barred from holding a public reading of his new novel about 9/11 on the campus today, the fifth anniversary of the attacks.

It is not in dispute that permission to give the reading was granted, revoked, and then granted again -- but why permission was revoked and then reinstated is the subject of much dispute, with Concordia's commitment to academic freedom again being questioned (unfairly, the institution insists). The novel's author, David Bernans, is a graduate student at Concordia and the novel -- North of 9/11 (Cumulus Press), is set at the university. The main characters are Sarah Murphy, a women's studies major, and her father, who works for a company with ties to the U.S. military.

Chris Mota, a spokeswoman for the university, said that she hadn't read the novel, and that senior administrators hadn't read it either -- and that they handled the request for a room in which to hold the reading without any regard to the content of the novel.

Bernans applied for the room, using the university's online system that lets people affiliated with the university reserve space for certain kinds of activities. After he was initially told his request was approved, he then received word that it had been rejected. When university officials would not tell him why he was turned down, he started gathering public support, and a series of critical statements and articles about the university started to appear, accusing Concordia of censorship. Bernans and his publisher have compiled many of the relevant documents and placed them online.

According to Mota, it was all just a technical glitch. Bernans indicated on his initial application that he had received sponsorship for the event from a graduate student group. When someone notes a sponsor, that group receives an e-mail notification to confirm sponsorship. According to the university, that notification was never sent, and so was never replied to, and it appeared that Bernans was claiming sponsorship he never had. That's why the event's approval was revoked, Mota said. It was restored when everything was figured out.

Bernans and his supporters point out that the event was restored after he went public. For whatever reason, the event is back on.

 

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