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Letter: NYCLU Continues To Defend Academic Freedom

Editor’s note: The NYCLU sent this letter to the Village Voice newspaper in New York in response to its a column written by Nat Hentoff in which Hentoff attacked the NYCLU’s letter to Columbia University president Lee Bollinger concerning controversies surrounding professors teaching Middle East Studies at the university (Read the NYCLU letter here). An abbreviated version of this letter appeared in the Village Voice.

We respond with regret to Nat Hentoff’s January 18 column (“Intimidated Classrooms”). Hentoff has long been a friend and supporter of the New York Civil Liberties Union and of free speech. But Hentoff’s column misses the big picture respecting academic freedom on the Columbia University campus. He is wrong on some facts and, in the end, he misinterprets the NYCLU’s position.

The major academic freedom problem arising out of the current Columbia controversy is that a film produced by a Boston-based advocacy group has provoked public officials and others to call for the punishment of certain Columbia professors based largely on the ideological positions that these professors have advanced in their lectures and writings. One Congressman has demanded the termination of one of the professors and a local newspaper has called for the disciplining of another professor “for errors in his book”. The sponsor of the film has labeled the views of the professors “Arabist propaganda” and has urged that Columbia “move against” the scholars. One professor has cancelled a course he was to have taught because of the current climate at Columbia. According to The New York Times, one professor has received death threats.

The NYCLU strongly supports the right of individuals to criticize what they regard as the wrong-minded views of these professors. That right extends to the sponsor of the film. It also extends to students, who may engage in such criticism within the classroom as part of a class discussion and, of course, outside of the classroom. (Hentoff simply gets it wrong when he suggests that we believe that professors may limit participation in class discussion to students who share the professor’s views. Our letter to Columbia’s President on this controversy made no such statement and that is not the position of the NYCLU). We noted that professors should, of course, treat students with respect and should try to create an atmosphere conducive to the free flow of ideas. But academic discourse – like political debate – can be contentious and participants in such discourse must expect that their views may be vigorously challenged.

Hentoff appears, on his part, to be unconcerned about the free speech implications of the commencement of “investigations” of faculty at Columbia based on what appear to be murky reports that some students have felt “intimidated”. Hentoff also fails to report that the allegations against the professors are disputed by dozens of other students and are denied by the professors themselves. (Hentoff also erroneously suggests that the NYCLU chose not to view the film. We asked for a copy of the film, but we were told it was unavailable because it was being edited). Grievance procedures in appropriate cases are, of course, an important tool to protect students’ rights. But Columbia must also take care that such procedures are not misused to harass professors with unpopular views. There may be some risk of that here.

The controversy at Columbia brings to mind the McCarthy era attacks upon scholars and upon the ground that they were using their positions to indoctrinate rather than educate. Under the circumstances, we felt it important to remind Columbia that, while an investigation may be warranted in order to determine the truthfulness of the competing claims in this situation, there are serious risks involved. As we noted in our letter to Columbia’s President, there is a danger that “in a controversy as politically charged as is this one…an investigation, if not undertaken with appropriate sensitivity toward academic freedom, will descend into an inquisition into the ideological or political views of the professors who have been accused.”


Arthur Eisenberg, Donna Lieberman and Udi Ofer
New York Civil Liberties Union

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