Tag Archives: Censorship

Editorial: The Importance of Free Expression

Free speech on campus has become a growing issue in the US and internationally as traditionally freer countries place more and more restrictions on speech. As students and journalists at the Claremont Colleges, we have seen the negative repercussions of this trend firsthand—in our classrooms, jobs, places of worship, and even in our coffee shops.

It’s sad what this culture has cost the colleges. We live in a community of bright, engaged students, but fear of radical left wing retribution too often stifles conversations before they start. We are fortunate to study under great professors but, going forward, the quality of many of our tenured faculty will be subject to how well a given professor fits into the Social Justice Warrior mold. Even our peers’ charitable efforts fall prey to the expanding reach of political correctness.

It’s our job as students to shape the community here on campus, but the administration has the power to set the tone and step in when our peers or teachers abuse their power. Too often, our administrations are compliant or even complicit in the destruction of our community’s cohesion and intellectual growth.

Yet last Thursday, President Chodosh and Dean Uvin stood up in favor of our rights in an email released to Claremont McKenna College’s student body and alumni. The email outlined the administration’s commitment to protecting free speech on campus, both inside and outside the classroom. By defending students’ and faculty members’ right to think and speak freely, Claremont McKenna College’s administration has made an important pivot away from the increasingly sensitive culture of censorship and toward a more positive academic community. This will serve students well both in Claremont and outside the bubble.

CMC’s announcement is a strong first step, and we’re hopeful that the administration will take this policy seriously in order to provide students with a well-rounded intellectual environment. We now call on the administrations at Pitzer College, Scripps College, Pomona College, and Harvey Mudd College to adopt the University of Chicago’s policies on speech as well. The Claremont Colleges have a great capacity to influence the world around us, but that can’t happen unless we are allowed to grow as thinkers and as people. We cannot overstate the importance of free expression on campus. Without it, education is impossible.

Steven Glick, Editor-in-Chief

Megan Keller, Publisher

Daniel Ludlam, Managing Editor

Let’s Talk about Academic Freedom

In a recent Harvard Crimson article, Harvard student Sandra Korn endorses the abridgment of academic freedom in order to prevent the publication of research promoting or justifying oppression. Her view is not particularly remarkable, and it certainly isn’t novel, but it is worth correcting nonetheless.

The constitutional case for academic freedom is clear. In Sweezy v. New Hampshire (1957) the Supreme Court accepted Justice Frankfurter’s rationale in Wieman v. Updegraff that “unwarranted inhibition [of academic freedom]…has an unmistakable tendency to chill that free play of the spirit which all teachers ought to cultivate and practice…Teachers must…be exemplars of open-mindedness and free inquiry. They must have the freedom of responsible inquiry, by thought and action, into the meaning of social and economic ideas, into the checkered history of social and economic dogma.” Later, in Keyishian v. Board of Regents (1967), the Court also upheld academic freedom and freedom of association in light of the First Amendment.

Both Sweezy and Keyishian were explicit constitutional prohibitions on McCarthy-esque purges, and invoked the phrase “academic freedom” in particular. Because Korn’s vision of “academic justice” requires censorship of professors’ publications on the basis of their political views, it is analogous to McCarthy’s witch-hunt of socialists. One can assume then that Korn does not find the constitutional argument for academic freedom compelling. So, in the interest of attempting to persuade Korn to revise her beliefs on the subject, I’ll articulate a philosophical argument for strict First Amendment protection of academic freedom.

Korn argues that “academic justice” requires censoring academic publications in order to ensure they aren’t oppressive. This is sort-of intuitive at a very superficial level – after all, oppression is bad, and we should prevent bad things when possible. Furthermore, Korn contends that “no one ever has ‘full freedom’ in research and publication…what papers are accepted for publication are always contingent on political priorities.” But this semblance of a syllogism and unapologetic naturalistic fallacy does not bear out. Korn ought to take a philosophy class.

Korn’s chief example of an oppressive academic publication is Harvard Professor Richard Herrnstein’s 1971 article “I.Q.,” which makes the claim (which would later be reiterated in Herrnstein’s famous work The Bell Curve), that intelligence is primarily hereditary and varies by race. According to Korn, Herrnstein concludes in “I.Q.” that “social programs intended to establish a more egalitarian society were futile.”

Even granting her this caricature of Herrnstein’s thesis, Korn’s strategy of promoting “academic justice” by ensuring that research that promotes or justifies oppression isn’t published is highly problematic. Any attempt to censor politically incorrect views creates problems for Korn’s argument because any method for distinguishing between “sufficiently oppressive” and “trivially oppressive” speech is ultimately arbitrary.

How will one go about delineating between views that are sufficiently oppressive to be censored, and views that, while marginally oppressive, don’t cross whatever arbitrary “oppressiveness threshold” one constructs? For instance, is this article the sort of thing that ought to be censored? I am, after all, openly endorsing the publication of exactly the kinds of oppressive academic works Korn opposes. While certain kinds of academic speech, for instance Holocaust-denial, would clearly fall on the “oppressive” end of Korn’s spectrum, few such cases are so straightforward.

The erection of a litmus test for acceptable ideology is a messy, oppressive endeavor. Remember, for instance, McCarthy-era Red-baiting. The question: “Who must agree that an academic work is oppressive in order for it to be justly censored?” is unanswerable, and itself suspect. A liberal commitment to inclusion of conflicting voices renders Korn’s principle untenable in theory and in practice.

That being said, Korn has captured the germ of an important issue. Some academic works, like Ward Churchill’s essay comparing the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks to “little Eichmanns,” clearly perpetuate unjust views. However, I contend that, instead of censoring these publications, one must counter oppressive views through reasoned debate. Academic discourse over controversial publications is not only an effective means to combat oppressive viewpoints, but, more important, the only way to avoid well-intentioned, but morally bankrupt, censorship of the Joseph McCarthy variety.

Oppressive viewpoints are definitionally false viewpoints, so the task of undermining an academic’s arguments for an unjustified belief should, generally, be an easy one. The primary feature of reasoned discourse is that it tends to get at the truth, including those truths that undermine the arguments in offensive academic publications. Herrnstein’s work on IQ is a case in point. In an article summarizing statistical findings post-Bell Curve, UC Berkeley Professor David Kirp notes that sociological research on the IQ debate has concluded that, while inherited genetic makeup is the largest determining factor on intelligence, socioeconomic factors and access to quality education also play a significant role. Taken together, research on this nature/nurture debate supports the conclusion that social justice policies like educational reform still have a significant role to play in levelling the playing field for the least well-off.

The philosophical problem of identifying which academic publications are, according to Korn’s argument, “unjust,” and the practical problem of assembling commissions to evaluate whether a particular publication meets whatever standards of injustice Korn might try to outline are convincing reasons to opt for an inviolable right to academic freedom. Though, clearly, some publications seem to perpetuate just views and others unjust views, most academic works inhabit an uncertain gray area. Consequently, rulings on the “justice” of a particular academic work are highly susceptible not only to human error, but to the broader possibility that our current conception of “academic justice” is, as Joseph McCarthy’s was, just plain wrong. In light of these human failings, and understanding the history of academic censorship in this country, we would do well to be wary of the notion of censorship itself.

Therefore, the appropriate response to academic works that disseminate unjust viewpoints is not the crude strategy of moral browbeating embodied in censorship, but an exposition of reasons an unjust view is unjustified. The right strategy in combating oppression is not to silence the opposition, but to engage in debate and invalidate oppressive viewpoints with factual evidence. One must remind the public not only that academics who endorse oppressive views are wrong, but also why those academics are wrong. While the risk that censorship may be abused is ever-present, engaging in moral argument to refute an offensive academic publication is, ethically speaking, risk-free.

Hail Politically Correct, Hail

As hundreds of Pomona College alumni descend upon the campus for Alumni Weekend May 2-5, there are sure to be graduates looking to relive their glory days through reverent nostalgia, whimsical antics and general drunkenly disorder.

In addition, while jaunting about their stomping grounds of yesteryear, many Pomona grads will likely sing their school’s alma mater, Hail Pomona, Hail, as alums are wont to do.

Yet, few current students will recognize the song as Pomona’s alma mater. The hymn became controversial in the spring of 2008 after fliers appeared across the campus linking the song’s inception to a blackface minstrel show performed as early as 1909. While the song itself contains no offensive lyrics, this apparently sordid pedigree has tainted the image of the song in the eyes of the Pomona administration.

President David Oxtoby sent a letter to the Pomona College community Dec. 15, 2008, writing that, “Given the divisive nature of the song on campus… it will not be included in programs for Commencement or Convocation for the present.” However, he also “decided to confirm Hail Pomona, Hail as Pomona’s Alma Mater and to end the suspension of performances at official college events such as Alumni Weekend.”

This was certainly an odd turn of events. If the song is truly bigoted and immoral, then why not comprehensively ban it from all college functions?  Pomona’s demographically driven ban—a musical score forbidden for current students but “confirmed” for aging alums—results in a philosophical no-man’s-land of carefully considered interests. This “selective” prohibition both appeases youthful rage and alumni nostalgia—the latter a sentiment that often propels donor wallets.

Hypocrisy aside, and regardless of whether the song was actually performed as part of a blackface minstrel show (a charge comprehensively refuted in a well-researched report by Pomona alumnus Rosemary Choate ’63 in 2008), the notion that one must ban anything with unsavory historical roots borders on the ridiculous.

Indeed, President Oxtoby acknowledged this point in his decision, writing, “there is the troubling idea that all things associated with an imperfect past should be considered tainted even if there is nothing inherently objectionable about them.”

And yet, Pomona apparently got over that trouble and imposed the ban on Hail Pomona, Hail anyway.

Another troubling idea about the decision: What’s the limiting principle? Where to start? Where to end?

If one were to implement Pomona’s historical purity policy across every American institution, a vast array of professional sports associations, newspapers and magazines, and a lion’s share of the colleges and universities would have to be discontinued in the name of political correctness.

In the realm of music alone, notable tunes like the Star-Spangled Banner could potentially be deemed politically incorrect due to their nefarious origins. The melody of the Star-Spangled Banner was taken from a drinking song popular at an all-male social club in London. By Pomona’s standards, the national anthem has got to go.

And what of art or cinema? Should we ban masterpieces because their creators may have held racist or sexist beliefs irrelevant to the overall significance of their work? Walt Disney was infamously rumored to be anti-Semitic (a charge contested by many who knew him), yet we continue to enjoy movies and products branded with his name.

Indeed, Walt Disney’s nephew, Roy, was a Pomona alum from the class of 1951 and for whom the “Roy Edward Disney Professor of Creative Writing” at Pomona is obviously named. Is the close nephew of a rumored anti-Semite sufficiently proximate ground on which to rid the faculty of any association with the Disney name? The logic of Pomona’s decision inevitably takes us to some pretty untenable places.

More important, Pomona College missed a crucial opportunity to teach its students an enduring lesson through the whole song debacle. Instead of trying to cover up the past or pretend that racism didn’t (and doesn’t) exist (even if it didn’t actually exist, in this case), why not try to examine more fully the connections between racism and sexism in history and culture and try to learn how to stop them from spreading to other spheres of influence?

Pomona chose to shut down further discussion in the name of avoiding “divisiveness.” In doing so, Pomona improperly elevated perceived student unity over the essential core value of the university in civil society: discovering the truth through never-ending discourse, dialogue and debate.

President Oxtoby imposed his campus ban on Hail Pomona, Hail only “for the present.” Nearly five years later, perhaps it’s now time to revisit the wisdom of that misguided prohibition.

Censorship via political correctness is not the solution to discrimination; rather, censorship merely allows more subtle forms of bias to fester beneath the surface of silence.