Category Archives: Free speech

Simon Singh versus… the chiropractors?

British science writer Simon Singh has a special place of respect here at Casting Out Nines for his outstanding  crypto survey The Code Book and for personally helping my upper-level topics students get their hands on a copy back in 2003. One usually associates him with high-quality intellectual discourse on science and its impact on society. So I thought I was not fully awake this morning when I read this in his email newsletter:

As some of you may have heard, I am being sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association. I cannot say much at the moment, but I will return to the subject in due course. In the meantime, thanks for the emails of support and the various blogs backing my position. I have not had time to reply – as you can imagine, I am fairly busy at the moment – but the support is much appreciated.

Huh? Well, evidently, Singh wrote an editorial in The Guardian called “Beware the Spinal Tap” critical of the scientific legitimacy of chiropractic medicine. That article is no longer at The Guardian, but others have reprinted, and the full article is here. Here’s a snippet:

You might think that modern chiropractors restrict themselves to treating back problems, but in fact they still possess some quite wacky ideas. The fundamentalists argue that they can cure anything. And even the more moderate chiropractors have ideas above their station. The British Chiropractic Association claims that their members can help treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying, even though there is not a jot of evidence. This organisation is the respectable face of the chiropractic profession and yet it happily promotes bogus treatments.[…]

I will leave you with one message for Chiropractic Awareness Week – if spinal manipulation were a drug with such serious adverse effects and so little demonstrable benefit, then it would almost certainly have been taken off the market.

I can see how the BCA would find this sort of thing objectionable, but how about, you know, just objecting to it rather than suing the pants off of the person who wrote it?

And don’t these chiropractors realize that going after Singh in such a public way is only going to increase the propagation of his article and ideas exponentially (witness this blog post)? Sheesh.

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Alexander Solzhenitsyn, R.I.P.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Russian novelist and winner of the 1970 Nobel Prize for literature, died yesterday at the age of 89.

I have for a long time considered Solzhenitsyn to be one of my intellectual heroes. His novels moved me deeply, particularly One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which at a slim 200 pages packs a more devastating  punch than most novels three times its length and has a place on my list of 10 Books that Changed My Life. His novel The First Circle is another favorite for its brutal clarity about life as an intellectual political prisoner in Stalinist Russia. All of his novels lead me into a deep appreciation of the freedoms which I too often take for granted today.

He combined his powerful writing with an authentic faith and moral courage which enabled him not only to stand up to the soul-crushing effects of political imprisonment but also to look Western culture in the eye and criticize, in an unflinching but somehow non-adversarial way, our loss of moral direction. Here’s an excerpt from his commencement speech at Harvard in 1978 which says it well:

We are now experiencing the consequences of mistakes which had not been noticed at the beginning of the journey. On the way from the Renaissance to our days we have enriched our experience, but we have lost the concept of a Supreme Complete Entity which used to restrain our passions and our irresponsibility. We have placed too much hope in political and social reforms, only to find out that we were being deprived of our most precious possession: our spiritual life. In the East, it is destroyed by the dealings and machinations of the ruling party. In the West, commercial interests tend to suffocate it. This is the real crisis. […]

If humanism were right in declaring that man is born to be happy, he would not be born to die. Since his body is doomed to die, his task on earth evidently must be of a more spiritual nature. It cannot unrestrained enjoyment of everyday life. It cannot be the search for the best ways to obtain material goods and then cheerfully get the most out of them. It has to be the fulfillment of a permanent, earnest duty so that one’s life journey may become an experience of moral growth, so that one may leave life a better human being than one started it.

All of us who work in education would do well to think about that.

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Friedman gets a pie in the face

Seems like it’s been ages since we’ve heard of crazed left-wing university students throwing pies at speakers, so I’m almost nostalgic about this:

Brown University is condemning the actions of two people — at least one of whom is a student — who threw a pie-like substance Tuesday night at Thomas Friedman, a columnist for The New York Times who was speaking on the campus. Friedman took a few minutes to clean himself up, but continued his talk. Michael Chapman, vice president for public affairs and university relations, issued a statement in which he said: “Freedom of speech is prized on a university campus. While Brown students are encouraged to express their opinions on any subject and in a variety of forums, the university does not tolerate such assaults against a speaker or disrupting the right of others to hear a speaker’s perspectives.” The statement said that one of those involved was apprehended and identified as a student. “The university will review this incident through its non-academic disciplinary system to determine the appropriate response.”

This is the same Thomas Friedman, by the way, who wrote The World is Flat, the seminal work for much of today’s edublogging. More: 

The Providence Journal reported that the incident involved paper plates with shamrock-colored whipped cream. After they were thrown at Friedman, one of those protesting threw in the air leaflets that criticized Friedman, saying: “Thomas Friedman deserves a pie in the face because of his sickeningly cheery applause for free market capitalism’s conquest of the planet, for telling the world that the free market and techno fixes can save us from climate change. From carbon trading to biofuels, these distractions are dangerous in and of themselves, while encouraging inaction with respect to the true problems at hand.”

These morons have just enough intellect and courage to hit somebody in the face with a pie and then run away, trailing badly-written quasi-philosophical leaflets in their wake; but not enough to actually write real books and give public lectures about the issues. Here’s hoping Brown acts with some toughness on this. 

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Retrospective: Truth and consequences for Ward Churchill (7.25.2007)

Editorial: Today we have articles #10 and #11 in the weeklong retrospective series here at CO9s. The twelfth and final one will come tomorrow, and then it’ll be back to regular posting.

This article was written this past summer, just after Ward Churchill had been fired. Even before his firing, I really believed that the main issue in the Churchill saga had gotten lost. People were merely choosing sides — the lefties taking Churchill’s side (see the Peter Kerstein reference in the main article) and the righties reflexively going the other way. But I didn’t believe, nor do I believe now, that this was the right way to see it all. The main point was that the man lied — about himself, about his research, in the research itself that he purportedly — and falsely — claimed he did. That he did so is on the public record and beyond dispute. That some would whitewash the fact by making him a martyr for academic freedom is as shameful as it is predictable.

I see the whole Churchill affair as just an extension of academic dishonesty, which I’ve already expressed my distaste for.

Truth and consequences for Ward Churchill

Originally posted: July 25, 2007

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Ward Churchill has been fired:

More than two and a half years after Ward Churchill’s writings on 9/11 set off a furor, and more than a year after a faculty panel at the University of Colorado at Boulder found him guilty of repeated, intentional academic misconduct, the University of Colorado Board of Regents voted 8-1 Tuesday evening to fire him.

The vote followed a special, all-day meeting of the board, in which it heard in private from Churchill, a faculty panel and from Hank Brown, president of the University of Colorado System, who in May recommended dismissing Churchill from his tenured post. The regents emerged from their private deliberations at around 5:30 p.m. Colorado time and voted to fire Churchill, but they did not discuss their views and they quickly adjourned. A small group of Churchill supporters in the audience shouted “bullshit” as the board vote was announced.

While the firing is effective immediately, Churchill is entitled under Colorado regulations to receive one year’s salary, which for him is just under $100,000.

The university’s Board of Regents got it right by firing Churchill. Continue reading

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Truth and consequences for Ward Churchill

Ward Churchill has been fired:

More than two and a half years after Ward Churchill’s writings on 9/11 set off a furor, and more than a year after a faculty panel at the University of Colorado at Boulder found him guilty of repeated, intentional academic misconduct, the University of Colorado Board of Regents voted 8-1 Tuesday evening to fire him.The vote followed a special, all-day meeting of the board, in which it heard in private from Churchill, a faculty panel and from Hank Brown, president of the University of Colorado System, who in May recommended dismissing Churchill from his tenured post. The regents emerged from their private deliberations at around 5:30 p.m. Colorado time and voted to fire Churchill, but they did not discuss their views and they quickly adjourned. A small group of Churchill supporters in the audience shouted “bullshit” as the board vote was announced.While the firing is effective immediately, Churchill is entitled under Colorado regulations to receive one year’s salary, which for him is just under $100,000.

The university’s Board of Regents got it right by firing Churchill. Had they elected to fire him for his political beliefs and for his writing, it would have been a terrible violation of Churchill’s academic freedom and free speech rights. As appalling as one may find his views, he has the right to hold them and to publish about them. The reason Churchill was fired, instead, was because of “repeated, intentional academic misconduct” which included plagiarism, falsification of sources, and fabrication of data. If this were a student in a university, that student would have been shown the door long before this behavior got to the point that Churchill’s behavior did. No faculty member can be allowed to break the rules of scholarship so egregiously over such a long period of time, and tenure provides minimal protection, at best, to faculty from this kind of misconduct.Peter Kerstein writes (in his blog in which all the comments are apparently closed), “This situation would never have occurred had he not defied conventional wisdom in his depiction of American casualties in a negative manner.” That is merely a partial truth. The whole truth is that situation would never had occurred if Churchill hadn’t plagiarized and falsified his work. Had Churchill applied the same standards of integrity that we expect from our students, no amount of scrutiny from any political camp would have produced anything actionable. It is not a violation of academic freedom to be punished for academic misconduct unearthed because your work attracted attention. Faculty do not have the right to be excused from the notoriety that their work brings them.Faculty and students are free in a university to hold unpopular views and publish about them. But if a faculty member — who after all is a professional scholar and bound by the rules of the profession — does so, her/his scholarship must possess the strength and integrity necessary to survive scrutiny. And the more provocative your findings, the stronger your scholarship must be to back those findings up. This is a basic tenet of published scholarship. In my discipline of mathematics, claims about mathematical truth will undergo scrutiny, the intensity of which is proportional to the strength or boldness of the results — because mathematicians want to know the truth. (Ask my former Complex Analysis professor who claimed to have proved the Twin Prime Conjecture.) If a mathematician’s results draw attention to previous work in which there were errors or falsifications, you would never see people raising the hue and cry for their having been uncovered — again, because the primary thing is to know the truth, and as a corollary, to eliminate untruth where it occurs.So ultimately this case is about whether the academy will accept false — indeed, falsified — attempts to uncover truth, and look the other way if they are found out of political concerns. CU says they will not. Churchill now plans to sue the university, so the story is not over yet, but I for one hope that the right thing continues to be done.

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Tuesday morning linkage

Morning, everyone. Here are some quickies for your early Tuesday enjoyment:

George Will comments in the WaPo about Antioch College. Here’s a sample:

During the campus convulsions of the late 1960s, when rebellion against any authority was considered obedience to every virtue, the film “To Die in Madrid,” a documentary about the Spanish Civil War, was shown at a small liberal arts college famous for, and vain about, its dedication to all things progressive. When the film’s narrator intoned, “The rebels advanced on Madrid,” the students, who adored rebels and were innocent of information, cheered. Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, had been so busy turning undergraduates into vessels of liberalism and apostles of social improvement that it had not found time for the tiresome task of teaching them tedious facts, such as that the rebels in Spain were Franco’s fascists.

It gets better from there.

Inside Higher Ed has some interesting stats on Ph.D. completion across different disciplines. The humanities Ph.D. people take the longest time and end up in the largest amount of debt. The shortest time and lowest debt? Engineering.

Also in Inside Higher Ed, we have an editorial titled Stop Starving Our Urban Public Universities. The main argument hybridizes the observation that high schools aren’t preparing kids for college anymore, along with the old warhorse that the main problem is that everybody — including and especially urban public universities — would do better if they just had more funding. Since that last has been thoroughly discredited by actual statistics in the public K-12 context, it’s curious to see it re-emerge in higher ed.

Finally, FIRE could use your financial support to help print and distribute their Guides which give information on rights for student and faculty free speech and academic freedom.

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Impressions of “The Shadow University”

Last night I finished reading The Shadow University by Alan Kors and Harvey Silverglate. This was a book that I wasn’t necessarily looking forward to at first — it clocks in at 400 pages of microscopic font with a high frequency of legalese — but in the end, it will probably rank as one of the most influential books I’ve read.

The book’s influence can already be seen here at CO9s in some of the recent posts (here and here for starters) about academic bias and free speech, as well as the new categories on Academic Freedom and Free Speech. And I’ll probably have more to say about the book and these related areas as well in the future. But for now, here are some lessons I pulled from the book.

1. I come away from The Shadow University with a deep appreciation for the US Constitution and the ingenious, and hard-edged, ways in which freedom is guaranteed to US citizens. The genius of the Constitution is that it establishes a government that is inherently self-distrusting, placing restrictions on itself and making itself accountable to the citizens in a way that cannot be undone without undoing the Constitution itself. This book is partially a brilliant mini-course in the Constitution and civil rights, and seeing up close how the Constitution works gives me a profound sense of patriotism that no amount of fireworks or Lee Greenwood ballads ever could.

2. Kors and Silverglate make a point in the final chapter of the book that university faculty have a responsibility to maintain a free and open environment for inquiry at their institutions. I admit that I had never conceived of my role as a faculty member to be in part to remain vigilant against the abuses of free speech and academic freedom. But I do now, and I have a renewed commitment to pay attention to all those faculty meeting memos and so forth for creeping instances of restrictions of rights.

3. I was quite moved by the actions of university administrators in the book. That is, I was moved to disgust and anger at the majority of administrators in the book who valued careerism and political correctness over doing what is right, in particular over and against their colleges’ stated goals of being committed to free and open inquiry. They are the real villains of the story, and Kors and Silverglate have no love for them. (There are some brutal quotes from the book that are too long to include right now.) On the other hand, I was inspired by the (sadly, few) administrators who showed the principles, honesty, and courage to stand up to superiors and political forces to preserve the rights of students and faculty.

4. Another lesson about adminstrators: Throughout my career in higher ed so far, I’ve been fortunate to have worked mainly under administrators who possess dedication, honesty, integrity, and intelligence. Of the one or two administrators I’ve known who don’t possess these qualities (none of whom are at my current college, just in case my Dean is reading this and wondering), those folks were merely incompetent and out of their depth — not mean, dishonest, or just plain evil. And none of the administrators I’ve ever dealt with has the all-pervasive careerism that Kors and Silverglate cite as the primary motive for most administrators. This, if you go just from the book, is an anomaly, and I’m glad that I’ve gotten off better than one would expect.

5. Finally, I’m profoundly aware that there are deeper and more important issues at stake in society, and higher ed, today than the issues that normally delineate the political Left and Right. Free speech and academic freedom affect everyone, and this is not a Republican vs. Democrat scenario. If you read the political blogosphere, you will see mainly one side lobbing hand grenades over at the other side without any real progress on the issues that confront, even threaten, us all. If there’s anything good that comes out of some of the outrageous stories that Kors and Silverglate tell, it’s that Americans can still find common political ground when issues really come to the point. I hope that this remains the case.

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Bias and thought policing on all sides

You might come away from yesterday’s postings (here and here) thinking that real bias in academia only occurs from Left to Right. Nothing could be further from the truth. Sadly, the impulse to censor and police the thoughts of professors and students is equal-opportunity.

Consider this appalling case at Ashland University reported at The FIRE in which John Lewis, a historian specializing in Ayn Rand’s objectivist philosophy, was hired as a professor at Ashland and promptly received a $100,000 grant from the Anthem Foundation for Objectivist Scholarship for teaching and writing on objectivism. After gladly accepting the money, affirming its support for Lewis’ research, and giving him six hours’ release time per semester in which to do it, the university then denied Lewis tenure because, as stated in the tenure denial letter:

…concern was expressed at all levels of the process about writings, submitted by you as part of your scholarly activities in support of your application, that advocate for Objectivist views that are hostile to the University’s mission.

The FIRE article speculates that the denial of tenure was based to some degree in Ashland’s institutional move toward evangelical Christianity. Whether or not that is the case, Ashland is a private university, and so it may restrict the activities or inclinations of its professors as it wishes. But it cannot advocate academic freedom for its professors on the one hand, guaranteeing them the right to research as their interests dictate, and then approve or deny tenure based on the supposed content of that research. If you are are a university and are going to restrict academic freedom, in other words, you must provide “truth in advertising”.

After appealing the tenure decision, Lewis was granted promotion and tenure — as long as he agreed to resign his position.

This kind of thought policing — and downright dishonesty — is serious business no matter the context in which it appears, and everybody ought to think that it’s a “very serious issue” when it occurs.

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A reminder for prospective RA’s

Don’t make absurd videos in which you kidnap rubber ducks. Five RA’s at Long Island University tried this and found themselves on the wrong side of the administration’s idea of racial sensitivity:

The five RAs created a satirical short film this past February in which they dressed as Islamist extremists and took a rubber duck “hostage.” Dressed in black and armed with a Swiss Army knife, the RAs read a list of “demands” that included a request for an iPod.

The finished two-minute clip was uploaded to YouTube and that’s when the trouble started, because LIU administrators didn’t think the video was funny. In fact, they deemed it “racially insensitive” and promptly fired the RAs, resulting in the loss of tuition assistance and meal-plan benefits.

Whole thing here. The students promptly sued the university in February, and now LIU has settled out of court, realizing that civility is not sufficient grounds for yanking a college student’s job and therefore his means to an education. And at any rate, LIU was applying a double standard, since according to the linked article, a group of female RA’s had created a similar video and were not terminated. But students shouldn’t have to go through months of litigation to be freed from what is clearly a lack of common sense and understanding of simple free speech issues on the part of the LIU administration.

I’m halfway through The Shadow University, and this case is typical of the sorts of things that book addresses. More to come on that later, I think.

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