CSUN professor sparks a debate regarding academic freedom of speech for professors

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Photo courtesy of David Klein

CSUN mathematics professor David Klein has spent years defending his right to express his views about boycotting the state of Israel. His name was recently brought up during the CSU board of trustees meeting regarding the legality of his website.

While CSUN students are known for utilizing their First Amendment rights to openly express their opinions about controversial issues, college professors, on the other hand, are entitled to academic freedom of speech.

According to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), academic freedom “addresses rights within the educational contexts of teaching, learning, and research both in and outside the classroom–for individuals at private as well as at public institutions.”

Legality

Klein has linked a webpage in support of the boycott through his faculty department website, angering many Jewish groups such as AMCHA Initiative, a non-profit organization helping to fight anti-Semitism on college campuses.

AMCHA brought up Klein’s webpage to the CSU Board of Trustees meeting, claiming he had broken California education code 89005.5, because he hasn’t received permission from the board to express such views. But Klein said this is a “misrepresentation of the law.”

“What the law says, is if you portray an opinion as being the opinion of the California State University system, then you have to have permission from the trustees,” Klein said.

After a thorough investigation in 2012, California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris, found Klein’s boycotting webpage to not violate any of the California State University’s codes of conduct.

Although he linked the controversial page through the CSUN server, Klein would only be in violation of the law if he attached his own personal views to that of the university. However, Klein is clear on his website that these views are only his personal views, and not affiliated with the university.

Michael Uhlenkamp, director of public affairs for the CSU, said that the CSU Office of General Counsel reviewed the website and didn’t find any material that violates the California Education Code 89005.5,“because it is unlikely that a reasonable person would interpret the ‘Boycott Israel’ web page as an endorsement by the CSU or CSUN of the material contained on the website.”

“While professor Klein might have a perspective that is not shared by the CSU or CSU Northridge, posting a link to a website that is hosted by the campus is not an endorsement by the university of views expressed on the website,” Uhlenkamp said.

In July 2012, CSUN President Dianne Harrison supported Klein’s right to academic freedom of speech.

“The reviews concluded that, because of the traditions of free speech and academic freedom that are a hallmark of our society and of higher education, it was not appropriate to censor Dr. Klein’s comments on the basis of disagreement with his personal views,” Harrison said.

However, while Harrison said that she does “… not agree with Dr. Klein’s positions and, particularly, the manner in which he has chosen to present them,” or his approach in doing so, she does stand by the university’s position to not censor Klein’s views.

“To censor the website would be contrary to the important value of free speech and send the disturbing message that the university is willing to restrict an individual’s right to personal expression due to disagreement with those views,” Harrison said.

Free Speech In The Classroom

Klein said that although the web page is accessible to any student through his department website, it is not a topic he discusses in class.

Communication department chair Bernardo Attias believes that teaching is a separate issue from free speech, and that the point of free speech is that it “protects your right to make controversial statements in the classroom and teach about whatever issues you want to teach about.”

He believes if a professor is hired to teach a certain subject, and instead of teaching that subject, they only talk about their personal views, then that would most likely be a problem that would get the professor unfavorable reviews within the department and the college.

As long as the professor is addressing the subject of the class, Attias said they have the right to express their personal views as well.

“If [Klein] is teaching math and gives a math problem about three Palestinians and two Israelis and he makes a math problem out of his political views, I don’t think there’s a problem with that. Some students might be uncomfortable with that, but it’s kind of too bad,” Attias said.

President of CSUN Students for Israel Alex Beyzer, 20, believes that freedom of speech should be allowed in the classroom only if all the sides of the issue are presented equally, which he believes Klein’s webpage fails to do.

“I do not believe that professors should use a university domain page or class time to promote a very biased agenda on a highly controversial and sensitive topic, especially if it is unrelated to the class that they are teaching,” Beyzer said.

Ali Ghazal, president of Students for Justice in Palestine Club at CSUN, does not believe that a professor’s own personal views should be a deciding factor in taking a class with a professor or not.

“There is a specific curriculum that is to be followed and that is what the student should take into account when enrolling in a class,” Ghazal said. “With that, I believe being open minded allows us all to learn from each other.”

How Are Students Affected?

While Provost and VP for Academic Affairs Harold Hellenbrand acknowledges that all students have the right to opt out of a class with a professor whose views they don’t agree with, he also notes that if that is the only professor teaching that course, the student may have no other option but to take that specific class.

However, he believes that professors who have strong controversial views are usually the ones who are most objective in the classroom.

“Most often than not, the professors who have pronounced eradicable views on subjects have figured out how to teach objectively because they are aware that their views are so at odds with the establishment that they know people will challenge them,” Hellenbrand said. “And they’re aware that if they’re challenged, then they need to make sure that they’re grading standards are thoroughly objective.”

Josh Blank, a CSUN junior majoring in television production, said that while he supports free speech, he does not feel that Klein should be allowed to host his webpage.

“I am all for free speech but when someone at a school has an influence, they should keep their political views to themselves and not be allowed to create websites like these,” Blank said.

Klein’s reviews on the popular website www.ratemyprofessor.com range from students loving him to strongly disliking him, yet there are no comments about the controversial website. However, there are a few comments made by students saying Klein’s opinions do interfere with his class.

“You have to believe his opinions to get a good grade. Slightly crazy and uses his math professor status to preach.. avoid at all costs…you won’t learn anything and will just think of ways not to have to go to class,” one commenter said on the website, while another commenter called him “the worst teacher on campus and very opinionated.”

CSUN senior Adam Shamam, 24, an information systems and business major, feels that Klein’s website is “one sided.”

“I feel that the images presented along with the accompanying information fail to provide the full story behind the incident that led to the subject incident in question,”  Shamam said. “Therefore CSUN students or any other personnel visiting the site are likely to insinuate misled interpretations of website contents.”

Furthermore, he feels that CSUN should monitor the website because of its highly controversial images.

“CSUN should investigate and/or monitor this website due to the fact that respective students have direct access to it and so do the students enrolling into the professor’s class,” Shamam said.

Ethics

Harrison is not only a supporter of academic free speech, but she has expressed that she is very much against racism and in support of multiculturalism, a claim that Klein question is sincere.

Although they have let him express his views, Klein said Harrison has yet to acknowledge his views about Israel as a “legitimate topic.”

“[Harrison] has occasionally expressed her opposition to racism and her support for multiculturalism which is good and appropriate, but the most acute dramatic example of racism in the world today is the apartheid system in Israel, so anybody who is concerned about racism, has to consider that case. If somebody claims to care about racism, then they have to take a look at that and be critical of that. I think it raises a question how sincere her opposition to racism is, if she won’t even acknowledge that this is a legitimate topic,” Klein said.

President Harrison has stood by her comments that she made in 2011, that she does not agree with Klein’s personal views about Israel.

Klein said it’s only those who express controversial views who have to fight for academic freedom.

“It’s a constant fight and it’s a constant battle to keep that academic freedom. For non-controversial topics, there’s no issue for academic freedom, everybody is happy to let people say not controversial things. It’s only the controversial topics where it really becomes relevant,” Klein said.

Hellenbrand said that while it’s important for professors to voice their views, he does not agree with some of Klein’s ideologies and prefer that the website be hosted from another server.

“I would certainly prefer that the server he is using would be from Mars or another planet or a personal website, because it would make everybody’s life a lot easier.  So as I said it would be politically easier for us if it was offshore but I don’t think that morally it makes much of a difference,” Hellenbrand said.

CSUN Business law professor Carol Docan said that professors who express their personal views should be aware that it could affect their position within the university.

“If you’re not a full-time professor, I think you are even risking promotion. No one would say this to your face, but there could be some issues that could go on. Your colleagues are going to be judging you in terms of your work and judging if you’re going to be promoted or not. Each department makes a decision initially if a faculty member is going to be promoted or retained and I think that might be one direct force for some people,” Docan said.

But Attias does not believe that a professor’s views should have any affect on them getting tenure or possibly getting fired.

“I believe very strongly that you have the academic freedom to take the positions you want to take whether or not they are relevant to what your teaching and there’s very good reasons for that,” Attias said.

Faculty Governance

Klein said he uses his CSUN department webpage to link his page about boycotting Israel because he believes it is an issue that deals with faculty governance.

“Faculty governance is a principle that the faculty participate in the governance of the university and so I am expressing my opinion through this website to other faculty that we should join the worldwide movement for non-violent opposition to the apartheid racist policies of the state of Israel through boycott, in particular, academic and cultural boycott,” Klein said.

Hellenbrand does not believe that Klein’s webpage to boycott the state of Israel is an issue of faculty governance, and thinks it would be a “bad move” by the faculty to make such a decision to support it or not based on the webpage itself.

“To get a formal endorsement by faculty governance of the boycott of the state of Israel would probably be overstepping the boundaries, but saying that they’re opposed to Israel or saying you’re in support of the boycott, would probably be more tolerable for them to do. It just becomes a boundary issue,” Hellenbrand said.

However, Hellenbrand said he recognized that Klein might be right when claiming the issue is one of faculty governance if “it’s an issue in the sense to not make a decision, but in expressing an opinion.”

Attias feels that Klein’s argument that his webpage is an issue of faculty governance is “totally appropriate.”

“He has a message that’s relevant to the entire university and he’s using the university web server that he has access to, to do that. I think that faculty do that all the time with much less controversial messages,” Attias said.

How Far Is Too Far?

While Klein’s website may be first to host a boycott against the state of Israel, CSUN professors running controversial web pages is not a new issue for the university.

In 2010, CSUN economics professor Kenneth Ng made media headlines when his personal website BigBabyKenny.com which guided tourists through the sex trade in Thailand was exposed to university officials.

Hellenbrand addressed the issue in a faculty e-mail saying that while he understands that many people will be disappointed that the university didn’t force Ng to shut down the website, but by doing so would mean censoring free speech.

“As university leaders, we believe open debate is critical to ordering our values and determining our acts. While belief in an absolute right to censor might initially comfort us; “our” and “us” has a way of quickly narrowing to “you” and “me.” Then the danger is that exclusion and exploitation, the acts that initially incited us to censor, become the rules of the day,” Hellenbrand said in the email.

The website, with a tagline that reads “No hidden agenda. No censorship. No bullshit,” is still currently live with tourism advice for those wanting to travel to Thailand. While the website itself does not give direct information about the “Thailand girl scene,” it does have a blogroll which links to websites such as Stickman, a site that discusses news about Bangkok including which “naughty bars” to go to.

Every week, Stickman publishes a column about news for “Bangkok-based experts”  or for those who are frequent visitors of the popular city. This week’s column was called Alone in a Room with a Thai Ladyboy and even includes pictures of the columns “Girl of the week.”

Whether Ng is currently in charge of running the website is unknown. He declined an interview for the story.

Hellenbrand said that academic free speech crosses the line when it becomes a religious attack, but said that in regards to Klein, his views are currently only political.

“The issue with professor Klein, is to what extent does political speech against Israel become anti-Semitic? We had decided internally at the university, that his speech was against the current regime in Israel, and is not anti-Semitic, then therefore, it is political speech and he has a right to political speech,” Hellenbrand said.

Hellenbrand also said that Klein’s website is pushing the envelope in terms of being civil, an issue that has caused the website to be brought up to the CSU Board of Trustees time and time again.

“I think it’s bordering on being uncivil because of its pictures that are on there. But that’s part of what he is doing on purpose, which is testing out that sort of stuff. What people are normally doing in instances like this, is that they are pushing the boundaries,” Hellenbrand said.

Academic freedom of speech on other CSU campuses

California State University Long Beach psychology professor Kevin MacDonald, 69, has defended his work and reputation for seven years after his published work about anti-Semitism was exposed to the CSULB faculty.

Just like Klein, MacDonald never associated his views with those of CSULB.

In 2006 someone from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), sent an anonymous email to the entire psychology department at CSULB, except for MacDonald himself, directing them to view a comment made about him on the SPLC website discussing his views about anti-Semitism.

MacDonald has since removed his personal views from his university website and now has his own website where his opinions and published work can be found.

According to MacDonald, after the email about him was sent, Heidi Beirich of the SPLC came to CSULB to interview faculty and administrators about him. As a result, many faculty and staff distanced themselves from the professor.

“Eventually several departments issued statements dissociating themselves from my work and, in some cases, condemning my work,” MacDonald said.

MacDonald has published three books on Judaism, “A People that Shall Dwell Alone: Judaism as a Group Evolutionary Strategy”,  “Separation and Its Discontents: Toward an Evolutionary Theory of Anti-Semitism” and  “The Culture of Critique: An Evolutionary Analysis of Jewish Involvement in Twentieth-Century Intellectual and Political Movements.”

According to MacDonald’s website, his first book published in 1994, “A People that Shall Dwell Alone: Judaism as a Group Evolutionary Strategy,” discusses the hypothesis that “Judaism is a self-chosen, genetically fairly closed evolutionary strategy,” meaning that Jews have strategically found ways within their culture to make themselves genetically enhanced, giving them unfair advantages that non-Jewish populations do not have.

“It would be absurd to claim that CSULB has my beliefs. But in any case, the university has distanced itself from my views. There is no question that the SPLC wanted to get me fired, but they failed because I am protected by the tenure system… But the conclusive argument is that a public institution, even more than a private institution, cannot infringe free speech rights which are enshrined in the first amendment,” MacDonald said.

Communication department chair Bernardo Attias believes that while CSUN is one of the more open campuses that supports academic free speech, he doesn’t think that guarantees free speech being a given right at all times.

“I think CSUN is a wonderful and very open campus. Compared to other universities around the country, I think we feel pretty safe here saying what we want. But that does not mean that we have absolute free speech right by any means,” Attias said.

MacDonald has also received death threats and hate mail because of his personal views and published work, and has even had students interrogate him during a class session about it, which a CSULB student captured on video.

The video, captured on the first day of classes during the Spring 2010 semester shows students asking MacDonald specific questions about his views regarding white supremacy.

The video shows a student asking the professor, “how much will your personal beliefs infringe on this class?”

“Zero, this class is about psychology, it has nothing to do with it,” MacDonald replied in the clip.

The video has over 8,000 views and over 200 comments, ranging from supporting MacDonald’s views to opposing them, but one trend remained clear: students believe that he had the right to express his views.

“What happened to universities being places for people to open their minds? This film is living proof what a bunch of brainwashed zombies many–if not most–college students are…” one YouTube comment said.

Another commenter said, “I watched the whole clip and the students who heckled him didn’t even attempt to engage with Prof Mcdonald’s arguments. Its simply an ad hominem attack on Macdonald and attempt to bully him into silence and shame. Thankfully their attempt failed.”

Provost and VP for Academic Affairs Harold Hellenbrand attributed CSUN being unique to the fact that it is so diverse.

“We are such a diverse campus that people are used to people expressing all sorts of views. If you walk across campus, it’s like walking across the United Nations. I think people are just used to diversity here as opposed to at a lot of other places,” Hellenbrand said.


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