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Academic Freedom: The Same as Free Speech? By: Sara Dogan
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, April 30, 2009


The case of a University of California-Santa Barbara professor who sent his students an email equating Israeli soldiers in Gaza with the Nazis who laid siege to Warsaw has been making headlines in recent days. The University is investigating sociology professor William Robinson who on Martin Luther King Day of this year sent approximately 80 students in a Globalization course which he teaches an extremist anti-Israel email.
 
In his email, which allowed no room for discussion or dissent, Robinson declared that “If Martin Luther King were alive on this day of January 19, 2009, there is no doubt that he would be condemning the Israeli aggression against Gaza along with U.S. military and political support for Israeli war crimes, or that he would be standing shoulder to shoulder with the Palestinians.” The email contained an article by Jewish Palestinian sympathizer Judith Stone which characterizes Israel as “the final resting place of the massacred Palestinian people.” Along with the email, Robinson included 42 images which he described as “horrific, parallel images of Nazi atrocities against the Jews and Israeli atrocities against the Palestinians.”  
 
Predictably, the academic Left has rushed to Robinson’s defense, claiming that his email falls under his rights to academic freedom as a professor. In an article published Wednesday on The New Republic website, sociologist Alan Wolfe argues that Robinson was merely fulfilling his professorial duties by provoking his students to step outside their usual thought paradigm. “We ought to want professors in our universities who teach about controversial subjects to provoke, and even outrage, their students,” Wolfe writes. “We should be pleased that they care enough about the issues of the day and about what students believe to send emails to them when things happen in the world that bear on the major issues of the day.”
 
On the other side, pro-Israel organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), have stepped into the fray, characterizing Robinson’s email as anti-Semitic and “offensive” and attacking it for spreading hate.
 
But both sides in this dispute are missing the crucial point: Academic Freedom is not the same as free speech.
 
Nowhere has this point been made more strongly over the past half decade than in the battle over David Horowitz’s Academic Bill of Rights, which since its inception in 2003 has championed the cause of academic freedom on behalf of both students and faculty but has been widely contested and vilified by the teachers unions and the academic Left -- who have falsely asserted that the bill would gag faculty and violate their First Amendment right to freedom of speech.

In fact, the Academic Bill of Rights (ABOR) explicitly protects the academic freedom of faculty, noting that “Academic freedom consists in protecting the intellectual independence of professors, researchers and students in the pursuit of knowledge and the expression of ideas from interference by legislators or authorities within the institution itself. This means that no political, ideological or religious orthodoxy will be imposed on professors and researchers through the hiring or tenure or termination process, or through any other administrative means by the academic institution.” But unlike Robinson’s left-wing supporters, the Bill also recognizes that this protection includes students, stating that “From the first statement on academic freedom, it has been recognized that intellectual independence means the protection of students - as well as faculty - from the imposition of any orthodoxy of a political, religious or ideological nature.” 
 
The concept of academic freedom contained in the Academic Bill of Rights is not new. In fact, it is drawn from the century old tradition of academic freedom put forth by the American Association of University Professors, which in its defining 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure asserted that “Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject.”

UCSB’s Faculty Code of Conduct which Robinson is now under investigation for violating is clearly drawn from the AAUP’s 1940 statement. It prohibits “significant intrusion of material unrelated to the course” and holds that faculty must not take advantage of their “positions of power to …coerce judgment or conscience of a student.”

By sending out a virulent, one-sided email that allowed no scope for discussion or disagreement to students in an academic course, and which was not related to the academic subject he was charged with teaching, Robinson clearly violated both the word and the intent of the AAUP’s philosophy of academic freedom. 

Yet predictably, given its unwavering and often underhanded opposition to the Academic
Bill of Rights, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has done nothing to assist the students who complained about Robinson’s email. Though the organization has yet to weigh in publicly in the case, Cary Nelson, national president of the AAUP, made clear his position when he responded to media queries by noting that "historical comparisons are protected by academic freedom, whether or not they are endorsed by a majority of other scholars, even if the analogies are debatable, provocative, or reprehensible."

The AAUP’s failure to enforce even its own standards on academic freedom serves as yet another reminder why our nation’s students so desperately need the Academic Bill of Rights.

Sara Dogan is National Campus Director of Students for Academic Freedom.


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