Kenneth H.W. Hilborn

Presented at the SAFS Annual General Meeting (May, 2004), in a symposium entitled: Limits to Academic Freedom.
On March 13, 2003, the University of Western Ontario's official newspaper, Western News, published a letter from five members of our Department of Political Science objecting to their Department's sponsorship of a lecture by Daniel Pipes. They pointed out that Pipes was the co-founder of a Web site set up (as they put it) "to monitor the free speech and activities of scholars in North American universities who disagree with him about issues of foreign policy in the Middle East." The authors of the letter implied that this monitoring posed a threat to academic freedom. Pipes'  Web site, they argued, had a "chilling effect on debate about Middle Eastern issues."

These political science professors apparently believed that part of academic freedom is the right to make statements without having other people draw public attention to those statements and point out what may be wrong with them, such as errors in fact or misinterpretation of evidence. My own view is entirely different. If academic freedom is to be protected, it is important that ideologues be prevented as much as possible from abusing it in order to spread distortions or outright disinformation intended to achieve some political purpose. Any principle that is too often abused -- even academic freedom -- is likely to fall into disrepute. As a means of deterring abuse, it may be a very good thing if so-called watchdog organizations keep an eye on what professors are up to, and get students to report on what they are being told in class, or in assigned reading, or in comments on essays.

I have a photocopy of some pages from an essay that was submitted in a political-science course at Western back in 1988 -- a course on international relations. Since I was teaching a related course in History, the student brought his essay to me after it had been marked, and asked for my opinion. The comments on it were rather interesting. The essay included a brief reference to Stalin as (in the student's words) "one of the worst butchers and abusers of human rights in history." In the margin I saw this criticism: "But one could cite equal atrocities committed by right-wing regimes, e.g. Somosa" -- despite the misspelling, an obvious reference to Somoza, a former dictator of Nicaragua.

If you have an ideological agenda, and therefore want to get away with making statements of that kind to students -- statements flatly inconsistent with historical reality -- you naturally do not want your students to report what you say, and thus subject you to critical scrutiny. You do not want to be monitored, though clearly you deserve to be.

It's worth noting, perhaps, that the instructor in that international-relations course remained at Western, and was among the five signatories of the letter objecting to Daniel Pipes and his Web site for their supposedly "chilling effect" on academic freedom.

In my view, participants in a university course are not members of a secret society under an obligation to keep to themselves whatever is said behind closed doors. Academic freedom does not mean freedom to misrepresent, to distort or to talk nonsense to students while enjoying security against outside criticism. Faculty members should not feel free to give students any version of the facts that those faculty members are unable or unwilling to defend in a debate with people better qualified than students are to detect errors, and if necessary to expose falsehoods. Students may not only lack the knowledge to challenge a professor's misrepresentations, even when those misrepresentations arouse suspicion; students may also (not unreasonably) fear the consequences of doing so, such as retaliation in terms of grades. The imbalance of both knowledge and power between students and the professor, especially when the professor's political outlook  is shared by his administrative superiors, makes outside monitoring all the more valuable as a protection for truth -- a safeguard against abuse of academic freedom in the interests of a political agenda. The only real "chilling effect" will be on abuse, not on academic freedom as properly understood -- that is, on the freedom to disseminate ideas that you ARE willing to defend publicly and to support with evidence.

I know of two organizations (both of them American) with Web sites that invite reports from students on what professors are saying -- one being the Campus Watch associated with Daniel Pipes (www.Campus-Watch.org) which focuses on the Middle East, and the other being Accuracy in Academia (www.academia.org). The latter organization is explicitly conservative, and is concerned with exposing attempts at left-wing political indoctrination in general.

More complex issues arise when we turn to the question of whether there can be any justifiable limits of the right of an academic to make outrageous public statements, if those statements fall short of actual illegality (such as incitement to commit murder). In cases of this type, it seems reasonable to draw distinctions of at least three kinds.

First: Was the individual speaking simply as a citizen, perhaps an official in some political organization? Or was he speaking as an academic, invoking his status as a faculty member at University X in order to give weight and credibility to what he said? In the latter case, by using the prestige of the university in this way, he was exposing not merely himself but the institution to public disapproval; and I think it can be plausibly argued that by damaging the university's reputation, and perhaps causing it financial loss, the academic in question would be giving the university valid grounds for close official scrutiny of the statements he had made. What might happen next would depend on the two additional distinctions on my list:

One of these is the question whether the academic was speaking on a subject within (or at least closely related to) his area of recognized professional expertise, or whether he was pontificating on something entirely unconnected with his academic field -- like a physicist holding forth on policy towards Israel. The other distinction that I would consider relevant is whether the academic was merely expressing opinions based on value judgments, or whether he was making statements that purported to deal with ascertainable, verifiable fact. It would be one thing, for example, to say on a public platform that President Bush was the most evil leader that the world has known since the Roman Emperor Caligula -- a value judgment, albeit an obviously silly one -- and something else altogether to say that Jews did not go to work at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001; and that they stayed away because the attack on the building was a Jewish plot organized by the Israeli secret service in order to gain more American support against Islamic resistance to Israeli oppression.

Outrageous statements that purport to be factual pose a relatively simple problem, or so it seems to me. If they relate to an academic's field of professional expertise, they raise the question of professional competence and/or professional integrity. A university could reasonably demand that the academic provide credible evidence to support his statements; and if no such evidence is forthcoming, dismissal for cause would be appropriate. Academic freedom is not a license to tell lies with impunity.

On the other hand, if the academic does have credible evidence to support what the public (or much of the public) perceives to be an outrageous statement, then the university has an obligation to stand behind him and defend his freedom to speak -- his academic freedom -- even at the risk of adverse financial consequences. That was clearly the obligation of the University of Western Ontario when Phil Rushton aroused a lot of public displeasure some years ago.

The situation is somewhat different if the academic was speaking on a subject unrelated to his own professional work. The question of professional competence, narrowly defined, would not arise; but all academic disciplines rest supposedly on respect for truth established through evidence. Even when you venture outside your own field, particularly when you still invoke your academic status to make your statements more credible, you continue to have a responsibility to the principle of seeking truth through use of evidence. Even if your specialization lies in (let's say) astronomy, academic freedom does not give you the right to defy evidence and make false statements with impunity on, for example, the events of "9/11." The astronomer might reasonably be warned that if he persisted in bringing discredit on the university in such a way, he could expect his career to suffer adverse consequences because of lack of confidence in his honesty and reliability. In the circumstances, I think, adverse consequences -- such as a low merit rating for so-called "service to the community" -- would not be unjust; nor would a decision to deny tenure or promotion.

Telling lies that are demonstrably inconsistent with the evidence is obviously different from expressing mere opinions, even what most intelligent people would consider silly or scandalous opinions. Even if they are related to an academic's field of professional expertise, outrageous opinions (unlike lies) do NOT provide proper grounds for revoking tenure; but they may well call into question an individual's judgment and intellectual maturity -- possibly even his mental stability. And those qualities of an individual can reasonably be taken into account in decisions on hiring, tenure, salary and promotion.

Admittedly this is dangerous ground, because of the difficulty of drawing clear distinctions between opinions that are truly outrageous and those that are merely controversial. Let me give examples of what might properly be placed in the former category. Somebody goes about saying that all persons who have sex outside marriage are sinners who deserve to die of AIDS, and therefore should not be treated for it should they develop the disease; or that Hitler was a benefactor of mankind because of what he did to the Jews; or that the more Americans, Canadians, British, etc. who are killed by terrorists, the better off the world will be. I believe that it would be unrealistic to expect that any academic could gain notoriety for preaching ideas of that kind and not suffer adverse consequences in his career; and I would myself find it difficult to argue that those consequences amounted to injustice. Most expressions of opinion ARE within an academic's professional rights; I think where I'd be inclined to draw the line is at expressions of approval or enthusiasm for the deaths of large numbers of people not guilty of any capital crime, and not the enemies of one's own country or an ally in war.

For example, though denial of the Holocaust would have to be treated as an issue of fact, approval of the Holocaust (or of other policies of mass murder) is an opinion that places a person holding it outside the boundaries of legitimate controversy -- and therefore outside the shield of academic freedom.

I'd be interested to know what other ideas there may be among those present regarding what distinctions can be made, and where lines might be drawn between the tolerable and the intolerable. I feel sure that somewhere a line must be drawn, since it is scarcely an acceptable situation if a university is able to do absolutely nothing to rein in an individual who is bringing discredit on the institution -- and possibly financial loss -- for no reason related to a quest for truth or to rational discussion of public issues.

The danger that this kind of problem will arise is increased by the ethnic and cultural diversity now so much valued in the academic community. There is less cultural consensus among academics than there used to be, and that may prove to be a source of trouble. I have read that in the Arab world there are people who admire Hitler for his anti-Semitism. Indeed, I once saw a report that one publication even referred to "Adolf Hitler, of blessed memory." In that cultural setting, applauding the Holocaust would not be considered outrageous; but if such an attitude reared its head on a university faculty in North America, it would create a first-class nightmare for the institution that had to deal with it.

Cultural diversity of the sort that now exists may also get a university into trouble on the ground that it is giving financial support to activities that in some way promote terrorism. On Tuesday, May 4 [2004] the Wall Street Journal ran a story about the complaints that some major American universities were making against a new condition that the Ford Foundation is attaching to its grants -- stating that the Foundation would withdraw funding if a university used money from ANY source to promote "violence, terrorism, bigotry or the destruction of any state."

What I find disturbing about that condition is use of the term "bigotry," which is just about as vague as the word "hate." Canada Customs once made a ruling that an audiotape of a speech I had given constituted a prohibited import -- "hate propaganda" -- apparently because I had spoken of the differences among racial groups in performance on standardized tests (a matter that I dealt with in the course of criticizing so-called "equity" policies designed to override test results in the interests of group equality). If the term "hate" can be stretched that far, so could "bigotry." Just how silly people can be in interpreting the meaning of terms is apparent from what the provost of the University of Chicago said in criticizing the Ford Foundation policy -- he said the policy could rule out the allocation of funds to any U.S. taxpayer, on the ground that the U.S. government sometimes engages in the destruction of regimes! What the Ford policy actually referred to was the destruction of any "state" -- and obviously one can destroy a regime without destroying the state it governs. The only state now targeted for destruction by any significant force is, I believe, the State of Israel.

We are left with the question, however -- what should a university do when a significant donor offers funding amounting to millions of dollars on condition that the university deny financial backing to activities that support such things as terrorism (for example, the showing of a Palestinian film glorifying suicide bombers)? Does the principle of academic freedom require the university to turn the money down, or does it not?

Kenneth H.W. Hilborn, is Professor Emeritus at the University of Western Ontario in the Department of History, also a SAFS member.

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