February 9, 2006

Bruised Bruins and egos

UCLA law professor Jerry Kang has a concise legal analysis of the imbroglio surrounding the "Bruin Alumni Association" blacklisting scheme. Greg James Robinson, who pointed out Kang's observations, is concerned about the chilling effects on campus as a consequence of such snitching efforts. We have some time and space to consider the issues in abstract since it appears that "BAA" head Andrew Jones is having his handed to him on a platter, by his own advisors, just a short time after David Horowitz had to retract a bunch of his allegations. Pardon me while I reach for my handkerchief, and I'll continue after a decent interval and the jump.

The fundamental question raised in a few places online (most clearly on the Volokh Conspiracy) is the question of what actually chills speech. All who write or speak publicly are opening themselves to criticism. As academics, we're supposed to be provocative and thick-skinned. I write an article, and someone disagrees with me. People cite the stuff, discuss it, argue its significance, and then buy an oversweetened latté. (Sometimes they buy the latté before writing.) Readers sort out the truth, or what they think the truth is. In class, we're supposed to foster discussion. That doesn't work well when everyone agrees on one position. Students disagree, and they're supposed to be thick-skinned enough to withstand criticism of their positions and listen to other perspectives. They're also supposed to be thick-skinned enough to withstand criticism and grading by faculty without wilting.

A critic outside a field crosses the line into coercion with a threat or pressure to eliminate an academic job or program based on what faculty write and say. The most obvious violations of academic freedom in this regard comprise crude, explicit pressure: "The university should fire so-and-so." I'm willing to give ignorant lawmakers one threatening remark as a good excuse to educate them about academic freedom, because education is part of my job. But that education needs to be direct and firm and should come publicly from faculty and administrators. The response needs to be immediate and forceful, because extended pressures or threats create a well-recognized attempt to chill speech that extend far beyond the give and take of general criticism.

Threats and pressure can be indirect, where the context of the pressure is similar to historical violations of academic freedom. The "Bruin Alumni Association" effort reminded too many of us of the Cold War efforts to find anyone who would inform authorities of politically incorrect behavior or attitudes of faculty. The scope of this program was designed to range far beyond the collection of anecdotal student reports on Rate My Professors and targeted individual faculty for opprobrium. It's a plausible conclusion that Jones was (and probably still is) hoping that he could pressure UCLA administrators to fire the faculty he hated.

Gauging indirect pressure and threats is and will always remain a judgment call. That is why we need to learn and remember the history of academic freedom (violations), so we can tell the difference between bona fide efforts that chill speech, on the one hand, and legitimate public debate, on the other.

Listen to this article
Posted in Academic freedom on February 9, 2006 10:00 PM |