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Academic Freedom and Political Blogging

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Obviously, I agree entirely with the substance of Paul Campos’s reply to Glenn Reynolds’s attempts to defend illegal and counterproductive assassinations. Since it came up in comments too, I should perhaps further address the question of academic freedom that Campos brings up:

A final note: My column suggested that, given the support of people like Reynolds and Hugh Hewitt for disciplinary action against Ward Churchill, it wouldn’t be untoward to inquire if the University of Tennessee’s employment policies require unlimited toleration of, for example, a law professor who uses lies to justify murder. Again, this isn’t a rhetorical question: it genuinely interests me. Obviously, academic freedom isn’t unlimited. No one, I presume, would defend a professor’s “right” to, for instance, verbally abuse students with racial slurs, or to appropriate the work of others without proper citation, and so forth. And I certainly respect the views of people like Glenn Greenwald and Scott Lemieux, who if I understand them correctly go very far toward arguing that no expression of opinion per se should ever be a basis for the sanctioning of an academic.

This basically gets my position right; no rights are absolute, but I’m a near-absolutist on such questions. (I’m speaking here about what people say in their personal lives–obviously, academic freedom is not compromised if someone is fired for professional misconduct such as plagiarism or attacking students personally):

  • The biggest problem here is: who decides which political comments are beyond the pale? There are, after all, scholars who could sincerely argue that because I’ve argued that Roe v. Wade was correctly decided I’m an advocate of lawlessness and murder. Before one advocates consequences for political statements, remember that it’s not just your standards but David Horowitz’s that will determine whether people can keep their jobs. This is a cycle where nobody wins.
  • Even if we could come up with a principled way of determining that Reynolds’s comments were uniquely problematic and wouldn’t affect others, I still wouldn’t support any professional consequences. Indeed, for me this goes beyond academia and applies to anybody. People who remember my writings about the “Ivan Tribble” controversy will know I’m something of a crank about this, but people should be evaluated for jobs based on their ability to do the job, full stop. Even when employers are within their legal rights–which outside tenured academia is most of the time–people who use hiring and firing authority to indulge political, personal or cultural grievances are engaging in appalling (and, to the extent that they’re responsible to other stakeholders, grossly irresponsible) behavior. I suppose I’m an old-fashioned Millian, but I believe there are enough social pressures to conform and cower to authority, and employers have far too much power over employees’ private lives. That may be unavoidable, but I’m not going to contribute to it. Reynolds–barring some extreme misbehavior that would go well beyond a reactionary and poorly reasoned blog post–should be evaluated based on his teaching, research, and professional behavior, period. And this applies to everyone as far as I’m concerned.
  • Finally, I don’t know about Hewitt but if I understand correctly Reynolds–at least nominally–didn’t call on Churchill to be fired for his 9/11 comments. He may have called for him to be fired for his professional misconduct, but that’s different. Admittedly, it’s a complex issue because the legitimate questions about Churchill were the fruits of a wholly illegitimate political witch hunt, but I still don’t think it’s strictly accurate to call Reynolds a hypocrite on this unless he wrote something I couldn’t find in a quick search. But even if he did, I don’t think it matters. It’s very tempting to say turnabout is fair play, given Reynolds’s constant reliance on the tu quoque (or, at least, attempted reliance: as with the current case, one generally finds under cursory inspection that his tus fail to even quoque) but even if Reynolds called on Churchill to be fired or investigated for his political views it means he was wrong, not that he should also be subject to unjust treatment.
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