Friday, December 28, 2012

Free speech in higher education

When students or professors challenge campus orthodoxies, administrators find a way to silence them. But when speakers take positions that are comfortable to the campus Left, administrators turn on a dime, suddenly posing as First Amendment purists.

Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and a liberal, observes that “you are far more likely to get in trouble on campus for opposing, for example, affirmative action, gay marriage and abortion rights than you are for supporting them.”

Since support for Israel is now increasingly viewed as a conservative issue, just about anything goes when it comes to Israel-bashing.

It is refreshingly rare to find a commentator who will unflinchingly support freedom of expression whether politically correct or incorrect. Fifteen years ago, such a voice was found in the writing team of Charles Alan Kors and Harvey Silverglade. Their milestone volume, The Shadow University: The Betrayal Of Liberty On America's Campuses, opened eyes to surprisingly widespread censorship in US universities. The Shadow University was so successful that Kors and Silverglade were able to found FIRE, the civil liberties organization which Lukianoff now heads.

TODAY, THE campus situation is hardly better, except for the good work that FIRE now does. Lukianoff has just published a new book that carries the torch from where The Shadow University left off: Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Life, New York: Encounter Books, 2012. Lukianoff is a deft writer with a light touch and good humor, which makes for an entertaining and enlightening read.

Lukianoff's stories of heavy-handed censorship are often cringe-worthy in light of the lip-service that American educators give to the free speech and academic freedom. In case after case, Lukianoff reveals administrators to be vindictive when protecting their prerogatives, enforcing political correctness or silencing their critics. Lukianoff demonstrates that campus censorship betrays civil liberties, undermines democratic values, disserves open debate and limits educational effectiveness.

Lukianoff’s one fault is that Unlearning Liberty never resolves the Hobson’s choice which university administrators too often have to make when confronting offensive speech. On the one hand, they can censor the speech, punishing students or faculty who cross their lines. On the other, they can look the other way, ignoring speech which maybe hurtful or disruptive.

Too often, administrators are inequitable, shuttling between these two positions based on happenstance, caprice, or political pressure. Lukianoff condemns the former option but seems to leave them with nothing but the latter.

There is a better way, although Lukianoff does not say so. In fact, the right response to offensive speech is seldom for administrators to do nothing. While punishing the perpetrator is rarely the right answer, administrators always have other options. The best course is often for administrators to speak out, in a firm but non-threatening way. A strong leader can condemn the offensive speech, articulate their institution’s values and educate the community about civility norms. To ignore this point is to reinforce the Hobson’s choice which leads to either censorship or abdication.

FOR EXAMPLE, Lukianoff tells the story of sociologist William Robinson of the University of California at Santa Cruz. Professor Robinson gained notoriety in January 2009 when he emailed his students approximately 40 photographs juxtaposing Israeli soldiers in Gaza with Nazi soldiers at a concentration camp. In his accompanying message, Robinson spelled out his view that Israel is perpetrating a “slow-motion process of genocide.”

Two of Robinson’s Jewish students were deeply hurt by Robinson’s missive, and the university briefly investigated their claims that Robinson had acted unprofessionally in sending it. In response, Robinson’s allies organized a worldwide campaign which condemned both the two students and the university for trying to censor Robinson.

True to form, Lukianoff sides with Robinson, arguing that the university should not punish him for a message which related, at least arguably, to the subject of his course. Lukianoff argues that “attitudes about Israel on campus would only worsen if students and faculty suddenly found themselves punished for criticizing Israel.”

This view is not unreasonable, although one could debate whether Robinson’s photographs involved more than just criticism. The problem is that Lukianoff stops short here, as he typically does in his stories.

He does not reflect on how a true leader might alleviate the students’ sincere trauma, not to mention Robinson’s dubious analysis, without limiting academic freedom.

A wise university president could condemn Robinson’s conduct without making a free speech martyr out of him. In such cases, university leaders must break out of the Hobson’s choice of censorship or abdication, and rights advocates like Lukianoff should show them how to do it.


2012: a tough year for free speech on campus 

Robert Shibley

There’s no place in the world where speech is freer than the United States of America. It’s a vital part of the attraction our land has always had for those around the world who find themselves marginalized, persecuted, or worse because of what they say or what they believe. Unfortunately, our college campuses are an exception to our exceptional freedom — and for those of us who care about freedom in academia, 2012 was another tough year.

First, some good news: the latest numbers, just released by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE, where I work), show that when it comes to college and university policies that blatantly contradict the principles of free speech and the First Amendment, things are actually improving, if slowly. FIRE’s latest annual survey showed that over three-fifths of the more than 400 schools reviewed restrict student speech that, off campus, is clearly protected by the First Amendment.

Casual observers may be surprised to find that 62% of public schools continue to maintain speech codes that are flat-out unconstitutional. It’s disappointing to see that so many of our public institutions — your tax dollars at work! — pay no more attention to the First Amendment than Snoop Dogg does to marijuana laws, but this is actually an improvement from previous years. Five years ago, 79% of public colleges were blatant scofflaws.

Of course, that’s just going by the schools’ written policies. When it comes to free speech, perhaps our nation’s colleges are better in practice? Sorry, nope. In fact, if anything, their violations of free speech are far more ridiculous than one would assume from their policies. Let’s look at a few of the year’s lowlights:

In January, Syracuse University finally reversed the expulsion of education student Matt Werenczak. While working at an inner city school in Syracuse, Werenczak and another white student teacher heard a black community leader say that he thought that the city schools should hire more teachers from historically black colleges. When Werenczak grumbled about this on Facebook, he was summarily kicked out of school and was required to seek anger-management counseling, complete diversity training, and write a paper demonstrating growth “regarding cultural diversity” if he wished to have even a chance to return. FIRE exposed this scandal on January 18, and only hours later, Werenczak was readmitted.

The next month, it was the University of Cincinnati’s turn to be embarrassed when it faced a speech code lawsuit over its treatment of a group of students who wished to collect signatures in support of a right-to-work ballot initiative. Cincinnati’s “free speech area” regulations restricted all “demonstrations, pickets, and rallies” to a mere 0.1% of the campus and required advanced notice to the university of 10 working days for any such events. FIRE had first warned Cincinnati that its policy was unconstitutional in 2007, but the university managed to ignore or deny this until it finally lost the lawsuit over its speech code (along with tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees and, of course, the ability to restrict its students’ speech) in August.


British selective schools fuel house price rise: Town renowned for its schools sees biggest increase anywhere in the UK during 2012

Finding a good government school for your kid can be a desperate business in Britain

A town renowned for its grammar schools enjoyed a bigger rise in house prices this year than anywhere else in the UK, research revealed today.  A ‘grammar school effect’ is said to be fuelling a buoyant property market in Southend-on-Sea, where average prices rocketed 14.8 per cent in 2012.

The Essex resort saw the steepest rise in selling prices of major UK towns and cities over the last 12 month, with homes now going for an average of £198,418, according to research by Halifax.

The town’s popularity is thought to have been boosted by its secondary schools, eight of which award some or all of their places according to ability in entrance tests.

Other UK towns which boast grammar schools and feature in the top 10 for house prices rises this year include Rochester, Dartford, Gillingham in Kent and nearby Bromley.

Robert McCartney, chairman of the National Grammar Schools Association, said applications to sit the 11-plus schools were increasing in many areas, particularly among families who are no longer able to stretch to private school fees.

‘With the credit crunch, a number of middle-class families who could, with a bit of a push, have afforded an independent school are now looking for an equally good education at a much reduced cost’, he said.  ‘There is also no doubt that people are continuing to flee from poor comprehensive schools.’

Southend’s grammars were a ‘big attraction’ for families seeking high-performing schools within commuting distance to London, he said.

The town has four fully selective schools - two for boys and two for girls - and a further four which are partially selective, offering a proportion of their places on merit.

Mr McCartney added: ‘Some people are prepared to move from anywhere in the country to an area where their children can go to a grammar school. In three quarters of the UK there are no grammar schools.

‘Whether it is a grammar or a good comprehensive, all the evidence of the recent past is that people are buying houses in areas where they will be near good schools.’

Some 164 grammar schools remain in England, spread across 36 out of 150 local education authorities.

They are most plentiful in Kent, Buckinghamshire, Essex, Lincolnshire, Birmingham and parts of Surrey but large swathes of the country have none.

Mr McCartney said many areas which had held onto their grammars were places of relative wealth, where families were prepared to pay a hefty premium on property prices to be in the locality of top-performing schools.

Today’s table of house price gains and falls shows that three areas which are among the top five performers have grammars - Southend, Rochester and Dartford.

Most of the worst performing areas were located outside southern England.

The Northern Ireland town of Craigavon, in County Armagh, saw the biggest slump in prices, with a 18.4 per cent drop, while Wishaw, in North Lanarkshire, Scotland recorded a 12.5 per cent fall.

Chorley, Carlisle and the Wirral, all in northern England, made up the rest of the bottom five.


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