I’m Thankful That FIRE Is Fighting To Save Free Speech For College Students!

When I entered SUNY at Buffalo Law School in 1989, I was surprised that some of my professors (not all) deemed it their solemn duty to indoctrinate me and my classmates with a left-wing interpretation of the legal system. It was not difficult to tell the difference between “black letter” Torts law and what was taught in that class. As an older student, I was not intimidated by the professors and pleased that some of the moderate and conservative students did debate the “critical legal studies” professors, but unfortunately, most students either remained quiet or actually enjoyed being indoctrinated by professors. I greatly enjoyed debating the left-wing professors and never allowed them to curtail my First Amendment rights at my public law school (although a few professors and a dean did try). The debates we sparked were beneficial to every student at our law school because college is supposed to be a marketplace of ideas, where all views are tested and challenged. We ensured that the views of our fellow students were more thoughtful and informed after they heard all sides of an issue. Freedom of speech should always be the backbone of intellectual life at every college, but sadly we cannot pick up a newspaper without reading evidence that this is not true at too many colleges.

In the battle to save free speech on college campuses, there are some heroes like the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). Here’s its website: www.thefire.org and one of it’s founding members wrote an excellent op-ed in the New York Post this week that I recommend you read:

How US academia became an authoritarian petri dish

By Harvey Silvergate, May 10, 2016, New York Post

I have dedicated much of my career to a contest I consider immensely important to the future health of America: the effort to destroy the liberal arts-and-sciences university by replacing the quest for human knowledge with the indoctrination of students into truth as it is postulated by self-righteous post-modern fanatics.

This dangerous trend accelerated in the mid-1980s. On college campuses, definitions of “harassment” were adopted that were so vague and broad as to drastically escalate the number of disciplinary proceedings.

Speech codes popped up that sought to prevent students from insulting or “harassing” one another, but that in fact strangled the academic enterprise. Kangaroo courts were established to adjudicate violations.

Remember that we’re talking about liberal arts colleges, not prisons nor re-education camps!

The bottom line was that I saw that these major institutions had taken a turn toward practices that furnished a nutrient-laden petri dish for an experiment in authoritarianism.

University of Pennsylvania Professor Alan Charles Kors and I established The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education in 1999, a year after we published our book, “The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses.”

That book followed Professor Kors’ representation, with some legal advice from me, of an undergraduate who had been hauled in front of a Penn disciplinary tribunal. The infamous “water buffalo” case involved a student who admonished a loud group of undergraduate women to “shut up, you water buffalo!” as he tried to write an English paper.

The women, who were black, considered this remark “racial harassment,” and student life administrators agreed. It turned out, actually, that in the offending student’s first language, Hebrew, the common term “behema” best translates to “water-buffalo” and refers in slang to a rowdy or thoughtless person.

Penn’s administrators, unaware of the student’s cultural background, assumed that the water buffalo was native to Africa (it’s not) and from this they extrapolated their hate speech theory. In the face of derisive worldwide publicity, triggered by The Wall Street Journal’s editorial titled, “Buffaloed at Penn,” the campus bureaucrats backed down, but it turned out to be merely a tactical retreat.

Sanity’s well-publicized victory in the water buffalo case triggered a flood of students seeking assistance from Professor Kors and me. These beleaguered individuals were suffering not only from unfair disciplinary proceedings, but also were being cheated of a genuine liberal-arts education.

The liberal arts are not readily compatible with censorship and mindless persecution. From the day students arrive as freshmen they are immediately subjected to tendentious sensitivity training engineered by burgeoning student life bureaucrats who intrude into their most intimate lives and thoughts.

I recognized that they were at the mercy of a new regime, something of a cross between Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and Kafka’s “The Trial.”

Kors and I couldn’t handle the volume, and so FIRE was born out of sheer necessity. I at the time had assumed that surely the ludicrousness of the campus prosecutions would result in the phenomenon burning itself out within less than 10 years.

It was, I told myself, a momentary social panic. FIRE would be a temporary project. The burning of witches in Salem, after all, ended rather abruptly when the Massachusetts high court decided that enough was enough and put an end to the trials in 1693. The scourge had lasted only one year.

Well, FIRE is in its 17th year with no end in sight. We are in trench warfare for the time being, until we can figure out how to administer a knock-out blow to the illiberal forces that have overtaken the academy.

The bacteria in the authoritarian petri dish, then, are thriving. And so must our efforts to develop the legal, cultural and intellectual antibiotics necessary to stop them.

Excerpted from Harvey Silverglate’s acceptance speech upon his being awarded the Manhattan Institute’s Alexander Hamilton Award May 9.

Jim Maisano
Jim@FreeVoter.com

(Jim serves as a Westchester County Legislator in New York)