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What universities' responses to 9/11 can tell us about what happens next on campus
Are recent statements defending academic freedom and freedom of speech sincere or a cynical ploy?
I landed in the Philadelphia International Airport at 9:10 a.m. on September 11, 2001 to look for an apartment, because I was starting my new job at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. Little did I know, the events of that day would shape the direction of my career for years to come. And a lot of what I learned while defending freedom of speech and academic freedom in those intense days and years after 9/11 gives me some idea of what the blowback from the recent Hamas terrorist attacks on Israel will look like.
More than a dozen professors were targeted for their 9/11-related speech in the days after the attacks. Professors were targeted for everything from cracking a joke about the attacks on the Pentagon, to claiming the victims had it coming, to one professor, Mike Adams, targeted for calling out a student who asserted America had the attacks coming. FIRE (now the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression) defended these professors when their academic freedom was on the line, and we succeeded in getting two schools — University of Colorado Boulder and University of South Florida — to drop the academic freedom and free speech-related claims against the professors.
In the end, only three professors were fired, and all three firings were ultimately justified by behavior that went beyond their speech. Of course the ideal number would be zero, but overall that period produced a brief but important improvement in appreciation for academic freedom and free speech on campus, as administrators realized speech they had sympathy for could be the targets of the speech codes, too.
Fast forward to today: When professors, students, and administrators see their community facing backlash and even being canceled for what they say about the attacks on Israel and the response, they will suddenly rediscover the value of academic freedom and free speech. In fact, we’ve already seen this happening.
For example, two members of Congress are already calling on universities to lose taxpayer support if they don’t punish students for blaming Israel for Hamas’ attack. Rep. Derrick Van Orden of Wisconsin said he will seek “the removal of all public funding from this anti-American moss covered dump called Harvard” after student groups issued a controversial statement holding Israel “entirely responsible” for Hamas’ attack. The next day, Rep. Mike Lawler of New York argued that any institution that doesn’t discipline students for “anti-Semitic rants should lose any and all federal funds.”
In response, many universities have begun to speak up. We’ve seen people like Claudine Gay at Harvard (who, to her credit, was also making similar statements before the attacks in Israel) and University of Florida President Ben Sasse issue statements affirming a commitment to academic freedom and freedom of speech on campus.
From one perspective, I certainly applaud these developments. But it’s difficult not to be somewhat cynical about them at the same time.
As the news came in and the horrors became more clear to us all, the silence of institutions that had otherwise been very vocal in their political stances was difficult to ignore. Criticisms came swiftly, and I think ex-Harvard President Lawrence Summers and Sarah Lawrence professor Samuel Abrams were entirely right in saying that if universities are going to comment on everything else, it is outrageous not to comment on the murder of so many civilians.
This is the kind of quagmire universities find themselves in when they don’t adopt the position of institutional neutrality famously outlined in the University of Chicago’s Kalven Report, which FIRE emphatically supports. Once an institution begins taking positions on political issues, they open themselves up to all kinds of problems — namely, calls for censorship of critical and dissenting voices, pressure from partisans that the university officially adopt their position, and even the endless hassle of deciding what should and shouldn’t be commented on.
As we saw in the wake of 9/11, in the coming weeks and months students and professors will get into trouble for making statements on either side of this issue. FIRE will defend their free speech and academic freedom rights, as we always have. It’s a good sign that universities are following suit, but it’s difficult to ignore the fact that it took students cheering on the rape and murder of civilians for schools to suddenly reverse course. Embarrassment on the part of university leadership is clearly playing an outsized role in these developments, and it's a shame it had to come to that for the principles of free speech and academic freedom to be reaffirmed and upheld.
Still, as cynical as I might be about it, if universities adopt the Kalven standard and stick to it, I’ll be glad. If not, these recent moves will reveal themselves as far more cynical than even I feared, and our already plummeting faith in our institutions of higher education will hit an even lower low. That won’t be good for anybody — not for our universities, not for our students, and not for our democracy.
Shot for the road
As we near publication day (Tuesday!) for “The Canceling of the American Mind,” my new book co-written by Gen-Z journalist, Rikki Schlott, here’s another clip from a FIRE interview where we discuss why we wrote it.
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