A Freedom That Doesn’t Exist

As the editor of my college daily, I suddenly found myself in a major flap with a professor who was demanding that the newspaper join him in a cause about which I had serious doubts. He responded by attacking me personally in his classes, none of which I was taking, and ultimately in a telephone conversation I ended up counseling him to go perform a biologically impossible act before hanging up.

That resulted in a call to the chairman of the journalism department and then a summons to the dean of students for whom I had great respect as a tough but fair man. When he heard my side of the story, including my offer to back it up with testimony from a string of witnesses who were in the offended professor’s classes, he called the complaining party immediately and asked if the quotes I had supplied him were accurate. He was told they were essentially.

“Professor so-in-so,” the dean said. “Do you understand the limits of academic freedom?” Before he could reply, the dean continued, “Academic freedom does not give you the right to commit slander in the classroom or preach hate. It does not give you the right to ascribe motives to someone that you cannot prove or to make allegations without basis of fact. It does not allow you to take up the cudgels for your own private causes. All of these things you seem to have violated. I therefore strongly suggest you restrain yourself and count yourself lucky that this young man does not bring action against you.”

My experience so many years ago and the lesson about the boundaries that necessarily attain to those who have taken on the responsibility of educating others came back to me in the wake of the controversy over a tenured University of Colorado professor who seems to believe that he has the right as an academician to say anything he wishes whether it is true or not; that agitation, no matter how silly and disruptive or inaccurately motivated, actually are part of his or any educator’s sworn obligation as a teacher.

The university, prompted in part by a demand from Colorado Gov. Bill Owens for his dismissal, is now wrestling with what to do about Ward Churchill, a throwback to the 1960s who has compared those who died in the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center to the Nazi, Adolph Eichmann, intimating in an essay that the “little Eichmanns” (technocrats) got what they deserve. He has tempered his remarks by saying that didn’t include fire fighters and police who died in that horror. Previously, he was arrested for trying to disrupt the annual Columbus Day parade in Denver as a celebration of genocide committed by Europeans on Native Americans.

Pitching out a professor with tenure is not easy and Churchill, a determined veteran of Vietnam as well as any number of domestic squabbles, has his followers and defenders even among those who even though embarrassed by him see the controversy as an attack on free speech as well as academic liberty.

How much speech freedom are we allowed under the First Amendment? We know that there are “fighting words,” pejoratives and challenges so enraging they are not constitutionally protected. The amendment also requires responsibility. One cannot shout fire in a crowded theater or agitate to riot. Today political correctness has imposed further restrictions on free speech. An intemperate remark, even innocently uttered, can bring a quick end to a public career.

With that in mind, those who are supporting Churchill out of concern for the long range damage his dismissal might cause to their own freedoms should ask themselves where they might stand if he had said, for instance, that the victims of the trade center were “Jewish money changers.” I daresay they would be yelling for his scalp, as they should be. As a matter of fact, those killed were of all faiths and ancestry, including Jews who have been doubly slandered by being compared to a particularly vile Nazi.

If the professor truly believes that the murder of innocent people going about their daily lives can be justified as legitimate vengeance for a government policy or a philosophy with which he disagrees, he should not be on a college campus peddling his hate. He has every right to challenge in a thoughtful provocative, truthful way the policy that he believes brought this about. But he has no such freedom to make irrational, utterly ridiculous statements about those who died, to make them perpetrators not victims.

As my dean said, no such freedom exists.

(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)