How much do professors care about speech?
Freedom of speech gained the support of a surprising group of people last week – the University of Massachusetts faculty.
I say surprising because in my three years at UMass, this is the first time I’ve seen our professors take such a vigorous public stand for the First Amendment. And apparently it took a convicted domestic terrorist to get them to do it.
After a lecture by political terrorist Ray Luc Levasseur was cancelled by the University amid massive statewide protests, five academic departments teamed together last week to re-invite him. “There were many faculty that were alarmed that freedom of speech on the UMass campus could be so compromised and so … many large departments, after polling their faculty, decided to sponsor this event,” said social thought and political economy professor Sara Lennox.
Their gesture is certainly appreciated, but where in the world were these faculty members during the numerous other rampant free speech violations at UMass over the past few years? Forgive my cynicism, but is it possible that maybe, just maybe, their newfound romance with the First Amendment has something to do with Levasseur’s radical left-wing politics?
Professor Lennox denied that ideology was a driving factor behind the faculty’s support of Levasseur, and said the professors invited him “not because any support the ideas, but because freedom of speech is sacred in this country.”
But Freedom for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), an organization that tracks constitutional violations on university campuses, questioned the faculty’s motives. While FIRE’s Robert Shirley applauded the University’s support of Levasseur’s free speech rights in a Nov. 10 blog post, he also noted that, “what UMass has persistently displayed is an appalling double standard through which controversial views on the ‘left’ side of the political spectrum are defended as free speech while controversial views on the ‘right’ are censored and punished either directly or through a variety of disgraceful artifices.”
History appears to support FIRE’s conclusion. In recent years, UMass professors have been noticeably apathetic when the speech rights of conservative speakers and organizations have been violated.
For example, just last March, a lecture by conservative author Don Feder was viciously shouted down by left-wing protesters. Many students on campus were outraged at the way Feder was treated and columns in the Boston Globe, Human Events and RealClearPolitics.com forcefully condemned the protesters’ violation of Feder’s right to speak.
The number of professors who publicly spoke up in support of Feder? Zero. Apparently, their notion that “freedom of speech cannot be abridged” doesn’t extend to controversial conservative authors.
The faculty was also conspicuously silent last April when 100 copies of The Minuteman, UMass’ conservative student newspaper, were stolen by protesters. The incident was videotaped, written up on news sites like the Huffington Post, and well-publicized on campus.
But not a single professor publicly backed The Minuteman’s freedom of the press. Ditto a few days later when the student government voted to suspend The Minuteman from campus unless the newspaper issued a public apology for unfounded allegations of slander.
Perhaps the UMass faculty’s leanings are best illustrated by an event that occurred two years prior. In May of 2007, anti-war protesters tried to pressure the University into cancelling an honorary degree reception for former President Bush’s Chief of Staff Andrew Card. The reception was set to take place during the spring commencement. When the University refused to cancel it, hundreds of protesters booed and shouted so loudly during the commencement that they drowned out Card’s portion of the ceremony. All he could do was stand on-stage waving his award mutely, as activists barraged him with verbal invective.
Where was the UMass faculty during this incident? Well, joining in on the protest, of course. According to a May 26, 2007 Associated Press article, mobs of professors stood onstage right behind Card where they booed and unfurled humungous signs hand-painted with slogans like “War criminal, go home!”
And go home Card did – without a chance to give the acceptance speech traditional of honorary degree recipients.
So what brought about the faculty’s sudden respect for civil discourse?
Maybe it was because some of them can commiserate with Levasseur’s radical beliefs. Levasseur was a known Marxist when he founded and led the terrorist group called the United Freedom Front in the 1970s. Coincidentally, the four most vocal newfound “free speech” zealots in the faculty – Professor Lennox, Professor Dan Clawson, Professor Lisa Henderson and Professor David Kotz – also appear to have Marxist ties.
The July/August 2000 newsletter of the American Sociological Association – an organization that Clawson belongs to – described Clawson as “a Marxist and feminist.” Lennox and Henderson have both been featured speakers at the Rethinking Marxism conferences. And as for Kotz, he served as vice president of the Academy of Marxism, according to a July 28, 2008 Political Affairs magazine article.
This column isn’t a rant against Marxism – I could care less what type of silliness faculty members are involved in.
But if these professors want to support a domestic terrorist, they should at least be honest about their motives. Pretending that their interest stems out of some courageous defense of the First Amendment is not just a poor example to students, it’s also intellectually disingenuous.
Alana Goodman is a Collegian columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.