FIRE and the Aftermath of September 11

January 2002

Across the nation, in response to the atrocities of September 11, 2001, and to the debates and discussions that have occurred in their wake, many college and university administrators are acting to inhibit the free expression of the citizens of a free society. Some administrations continue selective repression as if nothing had occurred: in the name of preventing "offense," they seek to stifle the views with which they disagree. Other administrations, more careerist in times of crisis than at other moments, and unburdened by moral principle, want to avoid scandalizing broader public opinion. In both cases, they are willing to continue to sacrifice American liberty.

Orange Coast College

On September 20, without a hearing, Orange Coast Community College suspended Professor Kenneth W. Hearlson. Hearlson teaches contemporary politics at Orange Coast Community College in Costa Mesa, California. On September 18, in a lecture on contemporary politics, he argued that silence on crimes against Christians and Jews in the Middle East was consent to terrorism. Several Muslim students complained to Vice President Robert Dees that Hearlson had called them terrorists. Other students in his class, however, confirmed that Hearlson was lecturing on moral consistency, not on the character of any students. The administration has yet to respond to FIRE's urgent letter. FIRE has now secured legal representation for Professor Hearlson. We will see the case through to the end.

Central Michigan University

At Central Michigan University, an administrator told several students to remove various patriotic posters (an American flag, an eagle, and so on) from their dormitory. On October 8, a Residential Advisor told them that their display was "offensive," and that they had until the end of the day to remove the items. As one student said, "American flags or pictures that were pro-American had to be taken down because they were offensive to people." FIRE has contacted President Michael Rao, along with the Board of Trustees and officials in the Office of Residential Life, to insist that this public institution not violate its students' free speech rights. President Michael Rao has written to FIRE, expressing his full commitment to the First Amendment and freedom of expression. FIRE is in discussion with the office of the president about the events on his campus.

University of New Mexico

University of New Mexico Professor Richard Berthold nervously addressed the terrorist attacks in his morning class on Western Civilization, remarking, "Anyone who can bomb the Pentagon has my vote." Embarrassed, he soon apologized for the statement, explaining that it was stupidly intended to be a joke. Although this state university is bound by the U.S. Constitution, its president, William C. Gordon, announced that he would "vigorously pursue" disciplinary action against Berthold. President Gordon later told Berthold that he had violated University of New Mexico policy by his statement. FIRE has contacted President Gordon and the University's Board of Regents, and is awaiting a reply. If Gordon refuses to recognize the Bill of Rights, FIRE will secure appropriate remedy.

San Diego State University

At San Diego State University, an international student, Zewdalem Kebede, overheard several other students, speaking loudly in Arabic, express delight about the terrorist attacks. Kebede engaged the students and, in Arabic, challenged their positions. Kebede was accused by San Diego State University of abusive behavior toward the four students. A University judicial officer formally admonished Kebede and warned him that "future incidents [will result in] serious disciplinary sanctions." FIRE has written to University president Stephen Weber about Kebede's rights and about Weber's obligations to the Constitution.

Duke University

At Duke University, the administration shut down a website after a Professor Gary Hull posted an article entitled "Terrorism and Its Appeasement" that called for a strong military response to the terrorist attacks. FIRE took Professor's Hull's case to the print and broadcast media. Shamed by widespread publicity, Duke reinstated Hull's web page, but required him to add a disclaimer that the views expressed in the article did not reflect the views of the University. Duke has never before required any other professors to add such disclaimers to their web pages. That institution's double standard is now out in the open.

Pennsylvania State University

At Pennsylvania State University, one professor's web page advocated vigorous military action as a response to the terrorist attacks of September 11. Penn State's Vice Provost for Academic Affairs, Robert Secor, informed the professor that the comments were "insensitive and perhaps even intimidating." In a letter to President Graham Spanier, FIRE noted that such a message, coming from the chief academic officer, chills free speech and academic freedom - especially when, as at Penn State, "intimidating" expression is grounds for dismissal. President Spanier responded with an unequivocal endorsement of free speech and academic freedom at his institution, but he denied that the Vice Provost's use of the term "intimidating" in any manner chilled the professor's free speech. Spanier assured FIRE that the matter would not be the subject of any disciplinary action.

The Tip of the Iceberg

These cases are the tip of the iceberg, because most faculty and students submit meekly to repression of their speech. Even where the following cases have achieved some satisfactory settlement, they reveal a campus attitude that does not value free speech and legal equality. FIRE has taken notice of these revealing incidents, some already resolved and some that FIRE will follow until their full and final resolution:

College of the Holy Cross

At the College of the Holy Cross, in Massachusetts, the chair of the department of sociology, Professor Royce Singleton, demanded that a secretary remove an American flag that she had hung in the departmental office. The flag was in memory of her friend Todd Beamer, who fought and died on the hijacked United Airlines Flight 93 over Pennsylvania. When she refused, Singleton removed it himself. After unfavorable publicity, the College apologized, but the flag in question was moved to the department of psychology.

Florida Gulf Coast University

At Florida Gulf Coast University, Dean of Library Services Kathleen Hoeth instructed her employees to remove stickers saying "Proud to be an American" from their workspace, claiming that she did not want to offend international students. After public pressure, President William Merwin revoked the policy.

University of Massachusetts

In September, the University of Massachusetts granted a permit for a student rally to protest any use of force in waging the war against terrorism. The protest was held. Another student group reserved the same place to hold a rally in support of America's policy towards terrorism, but two days before the rally, their permit was revoked. Students held the rally anyway, and their pamphlets were publicly vandalized, with impunity.

Lehigh University

Two days after the terrorist attacks, the Vice Provost of Student Affairs at Lehigh University, John Smeaton, ordered the removal of the American flag from the campus bus. After adverse publicity, the flag was replaced. The next day, Vice Provost Smeaton publicly apologized for his action.

City University of New York

On October 23, the trustees of the City University of New York (CUNY) voted to condemn a faculty "teach-in" as seditious. On October 2, in order to provide a forum for discussion on the terrorist attacks, professors at CUNY held a "teach-in" at which several professors criticized America and its foreign policy. CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein issued a public statement condemning the professors who expressed such views. Having approved the hiring and promotion of the very faculty who spoke, the trustees and administration now would prefer that they not express their actual and well-known views.

Johns Hopkins University

Soon after the terrorist attacks, Johns Hopkins University Professor Charles H. Fairbanks voiced his support, at a public forum, for an aggressive campaign against states that harbor terrorists. He said that he would "bet anyone here a Koran" that his analysis was correct. One member of the audience charged that he sought to "assist people in conducting hate crimes" with his language. Even though Fairbanks apologized for his remark about the Koran, Dean Stephen Szabo demanded a written apology and eliminated his position as director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, claiming that Fairbanks was unfit for the job. After media criticism of this dismissal, Dean Szabo reversed his decision.

FIRE reiterates the words that it released in the wake of the terrible events of September 11:

  1. All students and faculty are individuals, free to define themselves by their own lights. The imposition of official group-identity is a denial of the deepest meaning of liberty: individual rights and individual responsibility.
  2. All students and faculty have a right to the equal protection of the law. Legal equality is a foundational right.
  3. Liberty of opinion, speech, and expression is indispensable to a free and, in the deepest sense, progressive society. Deny it to one, and you deny it effectively to all.

These truths long have been ignored and betrayed on our campuses, to the peril of a free society. FIRE continues its commitment to defend these truths for all times and all seasons.