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A Fight for Freedom of Speech

Eric Foner is a professor of history at Columbia University. Glenda Gilmore is a professor of history at Yale University.

We are two of the professors to whom Daniel Pipes refers when he asks: “Why do American academics so often despise their own country while finding excuses for repressive and dangerous regimes?”

Pipes, a self-appointed arbiter of acceptable speech and founder of Campus Watch, recently included us in a list of six “Professors Who Hate America” in a New York publication. Using us as examples of professors who relentlessly oppose their own government, he called for “outsiders” (alumni, state legislators, parents of students and others) to “take steps to ... establish standards for media statements by faculty.”

If Pipes were simply displaying a profound misunderstanding of academic freedom, there would be no cause for alarm. But his screed is symptomatic of a broader trend among conservative commentators, who since Sept. 11 have increasingly equated criticism of the Bush administration with lack of patriotism.

William J. Bennett, co-founder of the conservative think tank Empower America, claims in his recent book “Why We Fight” that scholars with whom he disagrees “sow widespread and debilitating confusion” and “weaken the country’s resolve.” The American Council of Trustees and Alumni, an organization founded in 1995 by Lynne Cheney, wife of Vice President Dick Cheney, that calls on those groups to take a more “active” role in determining what happens on campuses, chastised professors who fail to teach the “truth” that civilization itself “is best exemplified in the West and indeed in America.”

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Pipes’ call for “outsiders” to police the statements of faculty conjures up memories of World War I and the McCarthy era, when critics of the government were jailed and institutions of higher learning dismissed antiwar or “subversive” professors. Historians today consider such episodes shameful anomalies in the history of civil liberties in the United States.

In equating opposition to government policies with hatred of our country, Pipes displays a deep hostility to the essence of a democratic polity: the right to dissent.

What was our sin that unleashed this assault? Our comments appeared in our respective universities’ student newspapers opposing the Bush administration’s assertion of the right to launch a preemptive war against Iraq.

The same position was voiced by numerous public figures, including members of the first Bush administration, former President Carter and members of Congress. It is the viewpoint of virtually every country in the world, including most of the longtime allies of the United States.

Neither of us offered any “excuse for dangerous and repressive regimes.” It is one thing to deem a regime repressive, quite another to believe that the United States has the right to assume the unilateral role of global policeman.

There is little chance that Columbia or Yale, where we teach, would heed the call to allow “outsiders” to dictate what opinions faculty may voice. The danger is that institutions less financially secure and more dependent on legislatures may bend to this gathering threat to freedom of speech.


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