Limits of free speech in classroom debated

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As questions about academic freedom continue to be debated, professors are facing a “chilling effect” on their First Amendment free speech rights from university administrations, said David French, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

Professors have become subject to scrutiny and investigation from university administrations, after, in some cases, making controversial statements in the classroom, according to the foundation’s case archive.

“There already is a chilling effect,” said French, who explained that professors in the academic community are being discouraged from completely using their academic freedoms and rights of free speech.

“The educational experience is hurt when the professor is afraid to explore fully the ideas of a class,” French said.

French, who has been president of FIRE for one year, said during the last year, about 150 professors have called the foundation seeking advice on what to do when facing situations in which their jobs might be threatened.

French recalled a situation the foundation dealt with, which occurred when Davis March, a professor from a community college in North Carolina, showed the movie “Fahrenheit 9/11” to a film class and a freshman English composition course.

French said the professor had no right to show the film in the English class, but did have the right in the film course.

“A film class is a no-brainer, but to bring it in a freshman (English composition class is) an abuse of your power,” French said.

Often, professors fear not receiving tenure, and suppress their own free speech and academic freedom, French said.

Robert O’Neil, founder and director for the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, said it is difficult to determine how far professors can go in terms of academic freedom in the classroom.

“The reason people go to college is to have their reasoning challenged,” O’Neil said.

He also said a professor cannot be fired if he or she makes a controversial statement.

“On the other hand, you can’t just turn a deaf ear (on controversial statements),” O’Neil said.

There have been several cases of university administrators investigating the controversial statements of professors, which in some cases led to the threat of them losing their jobs.

O’Neil said, however, that investigations do not always have to be regarded as negative.

“It’s important not to propose it in an accusatory fashion,” O’Neil said. “It depends on how it’s done. Simply saying, ‘Look we have serious questions,’ by itself, (is) not necessarily threatening.”

O’Neil, who said he taught a separation of church and state course for 30 years and had to be sensitive about not offending students, said if he was subject to investigation for something, he would be willing to be questioned. The inquiries could have an “unchilling effect,” because the problem would not be left “festering” or unsolved, he said.

Alexandra Cole, assistant political science professor, said she also believes there is a chilling effect on professors’ free speech rights.

“Although I’m on the faculty here, I do not have tenure right now, and so (it’s) certainly up to the administration to make the choice to dismiss me or retain me for an additional year,” Cole said. “So people who are in exactly my position, who don’t have tenure, are, of course, more wary of saying things.”

“Should I say something that might get out to the public, it might cause some sort of political uproar, (and) the administration will have an easier time dismissing me, because (I don’t have) tenure,” Cole said.

Cole said the case would not be the same for tenured professors who have job security, like Ward Churchill, who sparked controversy after referring to specific victims of the Sept. 11 terror attacks as being “little Eichmanns,” a reference to Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi SS leader primarily responsible for logistically organizing the mass murder of Europe’s Jews.

“As long as a professor treats students with respect, along with the university code of conduct, they can say whatever they want,” Cole said.