The Muzzle Awards: Collegiate Division

Stamping out free speech in academia
By HARVEY SILVERGLATE  |  June 25, 2008

The 11th Annual Muzzle Awards: Silencing free speech. By Dan Kennedy.
Our annual Muzzle Awards survey scours all six New England states for free-speech violations. But it always causes the judges special pains when we find such cases at institutions of higher learning, which, in theory, are supposed to be the freest places in our society. In reality, however, college campuses are home to some of the most outrageous cases of censorship.

Brandeis University is a clear winner, thanks to its farcical treatment of veteran faculty member Donald Hindley this past fall.

Hindley’s troubles began when he explained the origin of — and then criticized — the term “wetback” in his Latin American politics class. Two students did not approve of the professor’s use of the term and complained to Provost Marty Krauss. Rather than noting that an intellectual discussion of the history of a slur is relevant subject matter and protected by academic freedom, Krauss indulged the students’ fantasy that they were crusaders against racism. She wrote Hindley a letter in which she indicated that he had violated the school’s anti-harassment code, then appointed a monitor to sit in on his classroom for the rest of the semester, and ordered him to attend racial-sensitivity training classes (which he refused to do). All before he was accorded the hearing to which he was entitled. Hindley had never been put on notice that he was under investigation, nor even given a chance to rebut the charges — a maneuver that the Faculty Senate unanimously denounced in a series of stinging rebukes. Meanwhile, Hindley demanded a hearing. (Disclosure: my law firm represented him in this matter, and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, the board of which I chair, has taken up the case.)

Once Brandeis faced a firestorm of criticism both internal and external, Krauss backed down, sort of — sending Hindley an even more ambiguous, four-sentence letter which closed with “I trust that you understand your responsibilities regarding the University’s policies on non-discrimination and harassment. The University now considers this matter closed.” (Talk about the bloodied combatant leaving the battlefield while declaring victory.)

Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis would likely have been appalled by the disdain for freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and due process at the institution carrying his name. But the great jurist can find solace in the fact that his quip about sunlight being the best disinfectant has once again proved true.

As a training ground for aspiring journalists, Emerson College has a relatively unblemished record when it comes to student speech. That’s why it was such a disappointment when student Ashley Porter, a reporter for the Emerson television station, showed me the 2006–’07 and 2007–’08 versions of the school’s student handbook and pointed out that what had once been a section on “Statement of Rights and Responsibilities” had been changed to simply “Statement of Responsibilities.” Without giving students any notice, Emerson’s administration had, during the summer months, deleted wholesale the enumerated rights afforded to students, including their rights to freedoms of speech and press.

Thankfully, the bad faith shown by Emerson in the episode was matched by Porter’s determination. Her vigilant coverage of the story, including a well-timed request for an interview with the president of the Board of Trustees, forced Emerson’s administration to reinstate the students’ bill of rights.

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