Blogs > Liberty and Power > The AHA Fumbles on Speech Codes

Jan 7, 2006 10:49 pm

The AHA Fumbles on Speech Codes

The members of the AHA Business Meeting just passed up an opportunity to speak loud and clear for the cause of academic freedom. After a lively debate, an overwhelming majority rejected our substitute resolution (co-sponsored by Ralph Luker and Robert K.C. Johnson) that would have put the AHA on record as opposing speech codes and David Horowitz's Academic Bill of Rights (ABOR) as twin threats to academic freedom. Ralph Luker of Cliopatria was particularly eloquent in his defense of the substitute but it was to no avail. After the members rejected the substitute, they voted for the original and, clearly weaker, resolution that condemed the ABOR but was silent on speech codes.

This vote is a great disappointment and critics will have a field day. They will charge--and with some justification--that it shows that the AHA subscribes to a double standard of"academic freedom for me but not thee"). At the same time, I am grateful to President James J. Sheehan and all the other AHA officials who presided over the meeting. At every stage of the process, they bent over backwards to be fair to the sponsors of the substitute.

I am still in Philadelphia and will blog on this at greater length when I return. Many thanks again to those who joined us in waging the good fight for academic freedom.

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David T. Beito - 1/9/2006

I appreciate that. I wondered if I cam on too strong. I should mention that Common Sense was exceptionally helpful in providing support.

I am dubious, however, that an anti-speech code proposal ever stands any chance of passage. True, the opponents said they were against speech codes but are they really when push comes to shove? I wonder to what extent this was just a rhetorical device on their part (a strategy quite familiar to me in the UA faculty senate).

The stunning misinformation presented at the conference only adds to my suspicion. The opponents wrongly claimed, for example, that speech codes are dead and dying and thus the AHA had no need to take a stand.

Had they bothered to look into the matter, they would have found many, many, ongoing cases involving speech codes which taken together constitute the single greatest threat to academic freedom today. A quick visit to the website of The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education will show several of these pending cases including this one:

"GREENSBORO, N.C., December 15, 2005—The University of North Carolina–Greensboro (UNCG) is attempting to discipline two students for peacefully protesting outside two small “free speech zones” on campus. Ironically, the students were actually protesting the existence of those zones, which unconstitutionally restrict free speech. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has intervened on the students’ behalf."

To repeat, this is one of MANY cases in all regions of the country and in both public and private institutions.

chris l pettit - 1/9/2006

is a nice word. And i saw the resolution of "responsibility" in education.

However, as a human rights lawyer I can tell you that the word is next to meaningless unless the individual considered is willing to acknowledge the authority (not based in enforcement or a higher power) of law or principles that holds him to that responsibility. For instance, corporations have the reponsibility in law to ensure that their projects do not harm individuals right to water, a clean environment, etc...even within a "free market" environment. However, that has not stopped a nearly universal ignoring of that responsibility...and has necessitated the need for the development of international environmental and sustainable development legal standards and principles to help provide a legal authority to help corporations realise and embrace that responsibility.

yes we have responsibility...but as long as one is based in an individualized ideology, one feels responsibility to no one other than oneself and what one believes (since it rarely can be defended against critical analysis and universal standards). it necessarily takes a recognition of interdependence and interconnectedness and the acceptence that we are not individuals, but the myth of individuality rises from the different relationships that construct our "individual" realities (since everything is a product of different relationships). I wonder if one can even speak of "responsibility" in a truly individual context...


chris l pettit - 1/9/2006

It is unfortunate that they rejected your proposal, as it was the strongest of anything offered. At least the speech codes are on the agenda now, and look to be for the near future.

What I am still awaiting is a debate of how this all fits in with the universally acknowledged right to education, which includes a component that states that it be free from propaganda, manipulation, or violative of the freedoms of speech, religion, expression, association, etc. THis seems to go one of two ways...either one teaches everything under the sun, including Nazism, Communism, social theory of genocide, Mansonism, ID, and other reprehensible theories as "viable alternatives" to what is being taught...a state of "anything goes" as it were...but then professors could still indoctrinate and violate the right to education by only teaching one viewpoint and indoctrinating students...and it would be impossible to teach all the different theories. Or one can allow for the exclusion of certain theories and ideas on the basis that they are violative of the same universally accepted articulations of human rights that govern the international community (as well as the US since we have ratified the treaties and are held to customary law norms whether we accept it or not) and that they do not stand up to rational and critical analysis.

I am sure someone will attempt to bring up the "who will guard the guardians" theory, and that is a legitimate complaint...but one has the same problem in allowing all viewpoints to be heard. I guess the difference is whether we want tto view ourselves as a society of separate individuals that exists as independent entities...which goes against science, anthropological and social thought...or whether we are interdependent and interconnected, and depend on universal values to help bridge the differences between certain cultures and groups while still allowing them to retain their unique cultural identities. There are those trained in many fields who have the authority and knowledge to be able to critically analyze positions in academia and determine whether they are ideological bunk or viable academic theories and positions. One can even place a requirement on them that, in the even of doubt, one must err on the side of the theory presented. One can even build in "checks and balances" to ensure that, for the most part, those in authority do not utilize it in a power based manner to impose ideology. For the record, these individuals do not currently lie in the administrative sectors of the "university" and it would take a good deal of effort and discussion to assemble the correct sort of body(ies) that would be able to make the determination.

I just want to know whether you guys just think that the right to education as indivisible from other rights...meaning that there is a right to be free from ideological indoctrination and ideas that are unable to be withstand critical simply bunk and that we should allow all viewpoints to be heard and indoctrination to take place (ignoring historical and sociological studies demonstrating how social environment, socio-economic status, etc lead to vulnerability to indoctrination), thus contibuting to this ridiculous war of ideologies without trying to reach a universal standard and hold people to it.


Common Sense - 1/8/2006

I think it went better than I had hoped. David came across very well and had well-spoken supporters. Even those speaking against his proposal for the most part shared David’s opposition to speech codes violating academic freedom; they objected to David’s particular proposal at that particular meeting for other reasons. David put speech codes on the agenda. A proposal next year on that issue specifically may stand a good chance of passing.

Also, David should know that he may have received more votes than he perceived. His support was weak among those sitting in front of him, within his field of vision, but from my vantage point standing in the very back, I can attest that he had stronger support among those sitting and standing in the rear half of the room.

David T. Beito - 1/8/2006

Thanks. I really appreciate it. I was told that the usual number there is less than fifty, which probably would have been the case again had the resolution not been agenda.

David T. Beito - 1/8/2006

Thanks. I really appreciate it. I was told that the usual number there is less than fifty, which probably would have been the case again had the resolution not been agenda.

Jonathan Dresner - 1/8/2006

It is disappointing, but you guys gave it a good try; I'm glad the meeting was at least fairly well-run.

At some point the AHA might expand on its modernizing forays -- like presidential voting on-line, Historians' Cooperative -- and expand the concept of the business meeting so that it encompasses a greater share of the association's membership. What was the attendance, a few hundred? Probably not even ten percent of the conference attendees were there, which means it's in the low single digits as a percentage of total membership, making these decisions for all of us.