Betraying Academic Freedom

As the left exhibits paroxysms of moral outrage since the presidential election, the symptoms of Trump Derangement Syndrome are increasingly evident on university campuses. 

One such instance of this irrationality was on display in August at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln when Katie Mullen, president of the school’s Turning Point USA chapter, was verbally harassed by leftist professors after she had set up a promotional table for the organization.

A video recording of the events shows a graduate teaching assistant and PhD student, Courtney Lawton, giving the middle finger to Mullen while carrying a sign saying, “Just say No! to Neo-Fascism!” and shouting “Neo-fascist Becky right here. Wants to destroy public schools, public universities, hates DACA kids,” “fuck Charlie Kirk [founder and executive director of Turning Point USA],” and “TPUSA Nazis,” among other repellent slurs.

Another professor, Amanda Gailey (founder of Nebraskans Against Gun Violence and a virulent critic of police and gun owners), taunted Mullen with a sign that stated, “Turning Point: please put me on your watchlist,” and others passing by aggressively accused the conservative student of being a white nationalist, a member of the Ku Klux Klan, and a fascist.

Even for campuses that normally tolerate ideological excesses from its leftist faculty and students, this behavior was a bit too much for the Nebraska administration, which quickly removed Lawton from her position as a lecturer and assigned her to nonteaching duties, commenting that her behavior “did not meet the university’s expectations for civility.”

Outraged by the unceremonious firing of one of their colleagues, fellow faculty, students, and union members organized a September rally on the Nebraska-Lincoln City campus sponsored by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) -- purportedly to discuss issues of academic freedom but actually a protest of what they believed was Lawton’s unjustified termination. Ignoring the fact that Lawton had not engaged in debate or dialogue at all but had actually viciously bullied Mullen, her supporters sidestepped that inconvenient detail entirely, choosing instead to make Lawton the victim.   

It was not Lawton’s outrageously uncivil behavior that was the problem here, English professor Fran Kaye, one of the protesters, asserted, but retaliation for daring to question Turning Point USA, a conservative organization.

There's an important distinction to be made in this case, however. The lecture was reassigned and relieved of her teaching duties not because of the content of her speech or the views expressed therein, but for the manner in which she expressed them; specifically, her behavior, not her ideas, is what was inappropriate and violated the norms of both the school’s policies on academic free speech and conduct by students and faculty, but also the central idea of reasoned debate and dialogue. In fact, UNL’s own policies on graduate student conduct is very clear on this matter, stating that, “Professional conduct violations… are behaviors that make the workplace hostile for colleagues, supervisors or subordinates (e.g., undergraduate students) [emphasis added].”

It is one thing to engage in a discussion from two opposing viewpoints and to marshal facts and opinions to prove one's point in a debate, even if that discussion is very contentious and highly argumentative. It is another thing, however, to attack someone -- and particularly when that someone is a student and the attacker is a lecturer -- and not engage them in a reasoned debate, but instead use ad hominem attacks, spurious allegations about political affiliations, and accusations that their views as conservatives render their ideas useless because they are equivalent to fascist or Nazis beliefs. This is an entirely different interaction that the principles of academic freedom and campus free speech were never intended to protect or enable.

To see how campus colleagues can betray their fellow professors when those professors have what leftists believe are the wrong set of beliefs or ideologies, one has only to look at the case of Connecticut College professor Andrew Pessin, who found himself vilified on campus, not only by a cadre of ethnic hustlers and activists, but by fellow faculty and an administration that was slow to defend Pessin’s right to express himself -- even when, as in this case, his ideas were certainly within the realm of reasonable conversation about a difficult topic: the conflict between Israel and Hamas.

In August of 2014, during Israel’s incursions into Gaza to suppress deadly rocket fire, Pessin, a teacher of religion and philosophy, wrote on his Facebook page a description of how he perceived Hamas, the ruling political entity in Gaza: “One image which essentializes the current situation in Gaza might be this. You've got a rabid pit bull chained in a cage, regularly making mass efforts to escape.”

That image of a pit bull did not sit well with at least one Connecticut College student, Lamiya Khandaker, who, not coincidentally, had founded a chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, the virulently anti-Israel, sometimes anti-Semitic student activist group operating on more than 200 campuses across America. Khandaker complained publicly about Pessin’s old Facebook post, asserting that it was dehumanizing and racist, and claiming that Pessin was characterizing all Palestinians, not just Hamas, as pit bulls.

The History faculty joined the fray in vilifying Pessin and expressing their self-righteousness, announcing that “we condemn speech filled with bigotry and hate particularly when that speech uses dehumanizing language and incites or celebrates violence and brutality,” an odd accusation to make against an individual who had critiqued the behavior of a terrorist group. More than that, Pessin, according to the enlightened history professoriate, was complicit in a wide range of oppression, subjugation, and racism, pointing to “the particularly salient tactic of dehumanizing language as a means to justify brutality and lull otherwise ‘well intentioned’ people into silence and, effectively, complicity in racism, sexism, discrimination, colonialism and the numerous genocides throughout human history.” The fact that the Hamas Charter is itself essentially a call to genocide -- specifically of Jews -- apparently was lost on these historians.

This case also exposes a double standard currently prevalent in academia when it comes to who may say what about whom. Most faculty and administrators are morally inconsistent when taking a stand against what they consider “hate speech,” believing, mistakenly, that only harsh expression against victim groups needs to be moderated. When other groups -- whites, Christians, conservatives and Trump supporters, heterosexual males, pro-Israel groups -- are the targets, apparently no protection is deemed necessary and activism against them is excused, justified, or defended in the name of social justice or progressivism.

Professor Pessin made an innocuous comment on social media about a terrorist group halfway around the world and was subsequently vilified as a racist libeler who had injured the sensibilities of Arab students he had never even met or with whom he had never directly communicated. Graduate instructor Lawton, on the other hand, had verbally bullied and harassed a student in her presence, using her status as a professor as a club with which to beat Mullen simply for being a member of a conservative student group. Her colleagues came to her defense anyway, cloaking her outrageous behavior as a debate about academic freedom. 

If the professoriate wishes to give lip service to their support of the academic freedom they hold so dear, they must judge their peers consistently, and not based on whether their views represent prevailing progressive ideology or only political views with which the majority largely agrees. Otherwise, it will “represent a profound betrayal of the cardinal principle of intellectual endeavor,” as commentator Melanie Phillips put it, “which is freedom of speech and debate,” something universities should never stop diligently defending.

Richard L. Cravatts, PhD, immediate past president of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, is the author of Dispatches From the Campus War Against Israel and Jews.