Posts Tagged ‘Academic Freedom’

The (Many More Than) Seven Things You Can’t Say on Campus

April 8, 2010

In 1972 comedian George Carlin unveiled a profane comedy routine in which he uttered seven profanities prohibited on the public airwaves by the Federal Communications Commission. His “Seven Things You Can’t Say on Television” is often revered by self-styled civil libertarians on the left – even though the FCC regulations he was criticizing were upheld in FCC v. Pacifica Foundation in 1978.  Yet Carlin’s performance is iconic for some because of his stance against “the man.”

Today’s “man” isn’t the FCC, it’s the tax-funded university’s “Diversity officer” or  even its Dean of student affairs. But sadly the state of free speech on campus is no laughing matter, and the ACLU and its allies seem to have little to say about the egregious situation for free speech on campus. Public universities across the country routinely employ “harassment,” “bias incident,” and even computer use policies that prohibit not just a few choice words but entire subjects of legitimate conversation simply because someone – including eavesdroppers – might take offense or even find the conversation “annoying.” These policies, often collectively referred to as “speech codes,” stifle free speech either by their enforcement or by simply threatening to subject students to punishment if a listener reports them (as they are usually encouraged to do). The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has twice dealt with speech codes on high school and university campuses in recent years. Most recently ADF scored a significant victory for student speech rights in DeJohn v. Temple University, 537 F.3d 301 (3rd Cir. 2008) where the Third Circuit held that the school’s sexual harassment policy was overbroad and could be used to punish core protected speech.
With two years distance from the DeJohn decision, however, public universities across New Jersey, Delaware, and Pennsylvania continue to hold on to egregiously unconstitutional speech codes that use much of the same language rejected in Saxe and DeJohn and inhibit expression and skew debate on campus by placing students at risk of substantial punishment if someone claims offense at what they say.

At Rutgers University, students are encouraged to report “bias incidents” by fellow students, including any “verbal, written … or psychological” act that “maligns” a person on the basis of a number of bases including religion, sexual orientation, and others. Such acts warrant “intervention” where they lose a student to “lose confidence in their ability to participate in the educational mission of the university.” So a conversation or an email about religious differences that the listener or recipient thinks “maligns” their religion warrants punishment. And if all that weren’t enough, the department responsible for deciding whether a student’s email or conversation is a punishable “bias incident” is the “Center for Social Justice Education and LGBT Communities.” The exact role of any kangaroos in the proceedings is unclear.

Similarly, at Cheyney University in Pennsylvania students can be punished for “spoken words” or any “production, display or circulation of written words, pictures or other materials” that offend a person on the basis of a number of bases from gender or “religious belief.” So a student circulating an image of Mohammed that is viewed by a Muslim student or stating their belief that faith in Christ is the only means of salvation is potentially subject to punishment if someone is offended by their speech. Delaware State University prohibits “offensive utterances” and Indiana University of Pennsylvania and Westmoreland County Community College in Pennsylvania prohibit certain speech that the school believes would create an “offensive … environment.”

And it’s not just these 5 schools that are receiving letters today that are the problem. Research by ADF allied attorneys shows a host of schools in the Third Circuit that retain egregiously unconstitutional speech codes despite clear precedent in the Third Circuit. For instance, Lincoln University in Pennsylvania prohibits students from engaging in “disrespectful, absurd and rude” behavior. I believe this is the first policy I’ve ever seen that violates itself. Isn’t engaging in “absurd” behavior a substantial part of university life? On the college campus it’s not just seven profane words that are prohibited, but a whole host of ideas and topics of conversation that are verboten.

Is this any way to run a marketplace of ideas? There is no more excuse for universities in these states to claim that they were unaware of the law. It is clearly established, they are in clear violation, and it is time for them to respect the rights of their students and the authority of binding federal courts. That’s why we are today launching an initiative to urge schools in the Third Circuit to eliminate their unconstitutional speech codes. The five schools mentioned above will receive today a letter pointing out the serious flaws in the university’s speech codes and offering to assist the universities in bringing their policies into compliance with the First Amendment. It is our sincere hope that each school will choose to revise its policies voluntarily and ensure that its students’ rights are protected. But if they do not, we stand ready to take the next step and protect these students’ rights in federal court. And if you’re a student who would also like to address the unconstitutional speech codes on your campus, please let us know. This is the beginning of this effort, not the end. Stay tuned.

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Judge Rules Professor’s Opinion Columns Are Not Protected by the First Amendment

March 17, 2010

A federal judge ruled Monday that nationally syndicated opinion columns written by a criminology professor at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington are not protected by the First Amendment because he referred to them on a promotion application.

ADF attorneys argue that the university refused to promote Dr. Mike Adams to full professor because of his religious beliefs and political viewpoints, as espoused through his columns.  They are considering their options for appealing the decision.

“Christian professors should not be discriminated against because of their beliefs.  No university should refuse promotion to an accomplished professor simply because it disagrees with his religious and political views,” said ADF Senior Counsel Jordan Lorence.  “We disagree with the court’s assessment that Dr. Adams’ speech is somehow not protected by the Constitution.  Opinion columns are classic examples of free speech protected by the First Amendment, and mentioning them on a promotion application does not change this fact.”

Adams frequently received accolades from his colleagues after the university hired him as an assistant professor in 1993 and promoted him to associate professor in 1998 when he was an atheist.  However, intrusive investigations, baseless accusations, and the denial of promotion to full professor followed his conversion to Christianity in 2000, even though his scholarly output surpassed that of almost all of his colleagues.

ADF attorneys representing Adams sued UNCW in April 2007, arguing that he was harassed and denied a promotion because his Christian beliefs did not coincide with the political and philosophical stance of his superiors.  The court denied the university’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit in 2008.

The summary judgment order in the case Adams v. The Trustees of the University of North Carolina-Wilmington was issued by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, Southern Division.

Plausibility Structures and Academia

March 2, 2010

In the comments to another post on this blog, there was some debate about whether Christians are actually discriminated against in the academy, or if they merely fail to succeed academically because they are not very good scholars, they do not understand the assigned material, or their arguments simply are not very good.

That is a possibility. It would, however, seem odd that the same faith that inspired the establishment of countless major private universities in this nation now cannot produce believers smart enough or disciplined enough to succeed in the universities established by their faithful antecedents. Even so, Christians and others must be careful not to seek some sort of religious affirmative action to excuse scholarly mediocrity from criticism.

Nevertheless, there remains an issue to address: will the plausibility structures of the gatekeepers of academia permit the arguments of true-believing religious students and professors to receive a fair hearing? Will they even consider the arguments that tend to prove truths consistent with Judeo-Christian values but not with the secularist academy? J.P. Moreland touched on this point in his article, Academic Integration and the Christian Scholar:

A person will never be able to change his/her life if he/she cannot even entertain the beliefs needed to bring about that change. By “entertain a belief” I mean to consider the possibility that the belief might be true. . . .

A person’s plausibility structure is the set of ideas the person either is or is not willing to entertain as possibly true. For example, no one would come to a lecture defending a flat earth because this idea is just not part of our plausibility structure. We cannot even entertain the idea. Moreover, a person’s plausibility structure is largely (though not exclusively) a function of the beliefs he or she already has. Applied to accepting or maintaining Christian belief, J. Gresham Machen got it right when he said:

“[G]od usually exerts that power in connection with certain prior conditions of the human mind, and it should be ours to create, so far as we can, with the help of God, those favorable conditions for the reception of the gospel. False ideas are the greatest obstacles to the reception of the gospel. We may preach with all the fervor of a reformer and yet succeed only in winning a straggler here and there, if we permit the whole collective thought of the nation or of the world to be controlled by ideas which, by the resistless force of logic, prevent Christianity from being regarded as anything more than a harmless delusion.”

If a culture reaches the point where Christian claims are not even part of its plausibility structure, fewer and fewer people will be able to entertain the possibility that they might be true. Whatever stragglers do come to faith in such a context would do so on the basis of felt needs alone and the genuineness of such conversions would be questionable to say the least. And believers will not make much progress in the spiritual life because they will not have the depth of conviction or the integrated noetic [knowledge] structure necessary for such progress. This is why integration is so crucial to spirituality. It can create a plausibility structure in a person’s mind . . . so Christian ideas can be entertained by that person.

For the critics that have been commenting on this blog, the relevant question is not whether Christian scholars on the whole have the goods to succeed in academia. The relevant question is whether they could succeed even if they do. If the plausibility structures of the overwhelming majority of academics will not even tolerate the suggestion that Christianity is true, or that common secular beliefs are insufficient to explain reality, Christians will always be excluded by such narrow-minded academics no matter how valid or truthful their arguments are.  And if that is the case, the academy is not worldview-neutral, but anti-faith.

Thus, while Christian scholars should not shy away from the opportunity to integrate their faith and their field, and they are responsible for their choice to do so, the narrow plausibility structures of academic gate-keepers cannot be held blameless of hindering the pursuit of knowledge. It is certainly no coincidence that in many top-ranked law schools in 2005, over 90% of the professors donating to political campaigns “just so happened” to donate to Democrats.  Political position is not the equivalent of religious belief, but it goes to show that academic institutions prefer to hire their own kind.

The fact that university professors are so out of step with the public is plainly the result of institutional bias and narrow plausibility structures. Academics are more impressed with their own than with those who disagree, and they naturally favor other professors who “fit in” when reviewing and hiring graduate students and more junior professors. If a religious student is hoping to break into those major institutions, it requires a great deal of fortitude for him or her to tell the decision-makers that their theories and publications are wrong. It will obviously be easier to get in by adopting their worldview, telling them how wonderful their work is, and explaining how one hopes to use that work to springboard to new areas.

Where public universities are concerned, our government school administrations ought to have very broad plausibility structures, not narrow ones.  That is not to say that individual professors should not be able to teach consistently with their worldviews.  They should.  But when it comes to allowing other graduate students and professors into the field, narrow plausibility structures have no place.  There is no reason to shut the door on scholars with new (or ancient) ideas.  One way to broaden the plausibility structures is to strictly guard against worldview discrimination in grading, not to mention the censorhip of campus speech.  Professors generally ought to grade students based on whether their conclusions follow from their premises, not whether the argument fits the status quo. 

As my alma mater’s affirmation statement emphasizes, “Truth has nothing to fear from investigation.”

Canadian Christ-Centered Universities Under Attack

February 28, 2010

The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) has wrongly declared that Trinity Western University (TWU) violates academic freedom because of its Christ-centered character.

CAUT bases its conclusion upon two facts.  First, TWU draws its faculty and staff from among those who voluntarily embrace its Statement of Faith.

Second, TWU “rejects as incompatible with human nature and revelational theism a definition of academic freedom which arbitrarily and exclusively requires pluralism without commitment, denies the existence of any fixed points of reference, maximizes the quest for truth to the extent of assuming it is never knowable, and implies an absolute freedom from moral and religious responsibility to its community.”  Accordingly, TWU “is committed to academic freedom in teaching and investigation from a stated perspective, i.e., within parameters consistent with the confessional basis of the constituency to which the University is responsible, but practised in an environment of free inquiry and discussion and of encouragement to integrity in research.”

CAUT has put TWU on a list of schools it says do not respect academic freedom and is investigating other Christ-centered universities in Canada, including Crandall University and Canadian Mennonite University.

CAUT acknowledges that TWU is a legitimate institution of higher education with qualified scholars.  It nonetheless has essentially deemed Christ-centered higher education to be pedagogically illegitimate.  This is a remarkable departure from precedent.  Many similar institutions have operated in the United States and Canada for many years with their distinctive conception of academic freedom.  The higher education establishment has accommodated and accepted the distinctive nature of such institutions, respecting their legitimate place in the tapesty of North American higher education.

I suspect that simple disagreement with (and probably even animosity towards) TWU’s religious commitments has motivated this unfortunate departure from the respect that the world of higher education has generally afforded Christ-centered higher education.  The notion that God is the source of truth and that He has revealed truth in Scripture is foolish and offensive to most university professors, who believe that the exclusive means for discovering truth is through empirical observation or rational deduction.  A disagreement over epistomology is hardly a reason to deem schools like TWU to be illegitimate. Yet this is precisely what CAUT has done.

Christian Legal Society v. Martinez – Responding to Professor Volokh

December 14, 2009

The battle over Christian Legal Society v. Martinez continues to rage. Eugene Volokh responds to David French, ADF Senior Legal Counsel.

By treating this case as a “government benefits” case, I think Eugene is missing a few vital things. First, let’s not forget that this case arises in a university setting, where a very long line of case law holds — among other things — that the university is “peculiarly a marketplace of ideas” that if closed will cause our culture to “stagnate and die.”

Click to read counter response by David French to Eugene Volokh.

Speak Up University – Protect and Promote Religious Rights at our Public Universities.