February 10, 2005

Color Me Surprised

It's rare that I vehemently disagree with FIRE, but it just so happens that they have started a blog. One of their first posts deals with a letter written by Greg Lukianoff to the University of Colorado at Boulder:
Thomas Jefferson once said, "Error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it." Professor Churchill's opinions regarding September 11 have been utterly rejected by the public at large, have caused public figures from across the political spectrum to unite in their outrage against him, and have led many of his own colleagues to condemn his statements. If he intended to generate sympathy for terrorists, the effect has been the opposite. We need not fear his words, and we must not allow our anger to cause us to betray our deepest moral and legal principles. Indeed, it is most important that at times like these we defend our fundamental liberties. Liberty faces a far greater threat from a rejection of the First Amendment than it does from the opinions of Ward Churchill.

Now, I'm a believer in the protection of free speech, even when it's unpopular. However, I also believe that the right of free speech is not absolute. There's always the old example of yelling "fire" in a crowded theater, but you could also consider libel/slander laws, or even those court cases in which people were arrested for using profane language in public places. (The "cussin' canoeist" case was overturned on appeal, but people are still being charged under the same law.) We have to balance the right of individual expression with the possible harmful effect(s) it may have on others in the community.

I agree that Churchill's essay is protected under free speech. That's not what I worry about, nor what I believe that CU should be investigating. You see, Lukianoff uses Jefferson's quote to defend Churchill's right to free speech. The problem is, that same quote also, I believe, creates huge problems for Churchill and justification for CU's investigation. Jefferson says "Error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it," and Lukianoff uses the mass public outrage against Churchill to imply that reason has combated his "error of opinion." Jefferson is right, and in regards to the public essay, so is Lukianoff. But what about the classroom, a place where the power differential between student and professor nullifies the reason that would otherwise "combat" Ward's beliefs? Is Ward forcing his views upon his students? Is he indoctrinating them in his own radical beliefs? This is what CU should be investigating, the same as if they received word of a math professor teaching that 1+1=11, or a geography professor who continually lectures his students that the world is flat. The powers that be at CU are responsible for maintaining the integrity of the educational process. That Churchill appears to have made up his supposed Native American heritage, that he may have committed academic fraud, and that the essay in the midst of all of this has errors I wouldn't accept from my freshmen, much less a tenured professor, creates more than enough suspicion to investigate this man. Ward Churchill is an insult to those of us in higher education who do our jobs responsibly and professionally.

1 comment:

  1. Gee, to read the papers out here in Colorado you'd think Churchill was a responsible, upright, oppressed minority who's only crime has been to speak out -- on behalf of the greater good -- against the evil, genocidal Bushitler Administration.