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Stifling Debate at Eastern Tennessee State By: FrontPage Magazine
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, October 15, 2008

When East Tennessee State University (ETSU) grad student Sean Rife tried to bring author Robert Spencer to campus, he wasn’t looking to start a fight. As the president of ETSU’s Society for Intellectual Diversity (SID), a non-partisan student group that champions free debate and academic freedom, Rife was just looking to stir discussion about a subject, Islamic terrorism, which increasingly has come to dominate Americans’ concerns. But a fight – and a lesson in politically correct bullying – is exactly what he got.

It began when Rife presented his request to the school’s Student Government Association. Like any other student, Rifled filled out the required paperwork, and submitted a funding request to a student government committee. Then, on Monday, he went before the committee to discuss his request – and that’s when the trouble started.

“I immediately got the impression that they were never seriously going to consider approving our request,” Rife said. Confirming the impression was the loaded question put to him by one the student representatives, Chad Hall. “He asked whether inviting Robert Spencer to campus would make Muslim students feel ostracized,” Rife recalls. “I thought that was pretty telling.”

Still, Rife tried to defend the request. He pointed out that the idea was not to cause offense but to have a reasoned debate. As the author of a popular book on the subject, moreover, Spencer was more than qualified to lead a discussion under the title “Is Islam a religion of peace?” Rife further noted that SID’s faculty sponsor, Paul Kamolnick, an associate professor in the department of sociology and anthropology, had written a letter to Taneem Aziz, the leader of an Islamic community center in neighboring Johnson City, Tennessee, inviting him to attend Spencer’s talk and present his own views. So far from ostracizing Muslims, the idea was to include them in the discussion. None of that made a difference to the student government committee. “They had their minds made up,” Rife says. “They were asking questions just to make sure they checked all the boxes.”

Rife was thus unsurprised when, on Tuesday afternoon, his request to host Spencer was officially rejected. But he was taken a back at the reason for the rejection. Chad Hall, the same student who had asked whether Spencer would ostracize Muslims, explained that the request would be denied “due to the controversial issues that [David] Horowitz’s society condones is degrading Muslims.” (Hall could not be reached for comment.) Spencer’s name was hardly even mentioned, nor was there any evidence given of Horowitz allegedly anti-Muslim views. Instead, the mere association with Horowitz was sufficient to keep Spencer from campus. “I’m surprised they were as candid as they were,” Rife says. “I would have expected them to chalk it up to some financial reason.”

But budget constraints seemed to have little to do with the decision. For instance, in the same week that Rife’s request was turned down, the student government awarded the Student Photography Association $3,500 to sponsor a campus visit by photographer Mark Steinmetz – a sum that was $500 more than the $3,000 that Rife and SID were asking to cover Spencer’s visit. In addition, even as it vetoed Spencer’s speech, the Student Government Association granted itself $4,480 to attend the Tennessee Intercollegiate State Legislature. Money clearly was not the issue.

For Rife, there is no doubt that politics are at play. While ETSU does not fit the stereotype of the ultra-liberal academic fiefdom – “This is not UC Berkeley,” Rife observes, “We’re a fairly conservative campus.” – it does share something in common with such bastions of political correctness: the speakers invited to the school are almost without exception from the political Left. In the past several years, the school has hosted such far-Left activists as actors Felix Justice and Danny Glover, the latter an outspoken supporter of Cuba’s dictatorial regime; radical education activist Jonathan Kozol; and black-power filmmaker Spike Lee. Just last week, the school hosted self-described “sex and relationship educators” Marshall Miller and Dorian Solot, who delivered an instructional lecture titled “I Heart Female Orgasm.” A fall 2006 speech by David Horowitz was one of the only times in recent years that a non-liberal speaker has been welcomed at the school.

Such deliberate one-sidedness is a serious problem, says Professor Paul Kamolnick. “The school is not a smorgasbord of left-wing sects, but overall there is a left-liberal slant to the programming,” he says. Kamolnick is especially disturbed by the student government’s self-appointed role as the arbiter of campus debate. “I don’t know that they know what academic freedom means or that they understand that what they said [to Rife] is blatantly inappropriate. They took it upon themselves to determine what the campus should hear and they turned their fellow students into schoolchildren.”

They also violated the school’s academic freedom policy. Kamolnick points out that the students government’s politically inspired decision to refuse Spencer’s appearance contradicts two of the school’s foundational documents on academic freedom: ETSU’s vision statement, which avers that “diversity of people and thought is respected,” and the Student Bill of Rights in the ETSU student handbook, which states that “The freedom to learn depends upon appropriate opportunities and conditions in the classroom, on the campus, and in the larger community.” Denying his request to host Robert Spencer on political grounds, Rife says, “is antithetical to the purpose of the university, which is to stimulate discussion.”

Although he didn’t start the fight, Rife isn’t about to give it up. He intends to bypass the student government and file a formal appeal with the administration to have Spencer’s speech approved. But even at this moderately conservative school, Rife is realistic about his chances. “As long as I’ve been here there has been no major discussion related to Islamic terrorism,” he says. If the student government’s censors have their way, that won’t change anytime soon.

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