It’s never been simple. There’s more obfuscation today than ever about First Amendment issues.
The Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” decision is prime evidence of how chicanery can distort concepts of freedom and free speech into their opposite. Its interpretation of “free speech” bestowed special privilege on corporate wealth to dominate the electoral process.
But there’s lots more evidence of obfuscation, including in new battles roiling college campuses over free speech and “political correctness”. Just as civil rights activities precipitated the Free Speech Movement of the 1960s, protest movements are at the center of today’s campus controversies. Notable are the rise of “Black Lives Matter”, opposition to Israel's occupation of Palestine, and insistence on full gender equality.
As is their wont, university administrations have opened the new academic year with stern warnings and rules for incoming students. The University of Chicago Strikes Back Against Political Correctness, setting the tone for other colleges to follow. What’s wrong with that? Certainly commitment to academic freedom requires encouraging students to listen and think, to hear and argue contrary opinions, while exercising their full rights as citizens to organize and advocate.
Well there’s the rub. These administrative admonitions say nothing about rights to protest and collective action. Worse, they say nothing about the most serious violations of academic freedom in which many campus administrations are implicated. Wealthy donors have withdrawn or threatened to reduce funding to pressure universities to crack down on “political correctness”; a major complaint is that universities are “coddling” students who complain about racism on campus.
One of the most egregious violations of academic freedom is being challenged now by faculty at UC Berkeley, where an ongoing course on Palestine was arbitrarily cancelled after a coalition of 43 Jewish organizations complained.
There’s a lot more to be thought about, but I try not to let these blogs get too long. Still, I'd like to leave a little food for thought for those who might take at face value the declarations concerning “political correctness” on campus . (No, it’s surely not simple, not without complications.)
First, so-called “political correctness” may sometimes be stifling or plain foolish, but that's not why Donald Trump has made attacking “political correctness” a primary cause? Is it that he aims to make racism and "hate speech" acceptable?
The second question evokes a long story in its own right. Anti-Semitism is the charge used to suppress protests against Israel’s occupation regime. That “justifies” violations of academic freedom and even legislative actions to stop boycott and divestment efforts. Opposition to what is happening now in Israel, not only in the occupied territories, in no way contradicts condemnation of the horrors of anti-Semitism past or present. Plain to see, Israel already has its Donald Trumps in power, open racists who dominate Netanyahu’s cabinet. Jewish or not, one can no more be silent about that than we can bow to “our own” bigot’s frightening bid to gain the White House.
A special meeting of Berkeley's Academic Senate will consider the administration's decision to capitulate to an off-campus pressure group by closing down a course . It should turn back outside interference and return to the hard-won core principles of the Free Speech Movement.