On Missing the Point About Academic Freedom and Free Speech


Not long after I posted an item on the shouting down of California Attorney General Xavier Becerra by pro-Trump protesters at Whittier College, I stumbled across one of the more sanctimonious and misguided pieces I’ve yet encountered about the current free speech battles on college and university campuses.  In “Left-Wing Drexel Professor Who Opposes Free Speech Has His Curtailed,” posted yesterday morning to The Intercept, allegedly progressive writer Zaid Jilani directs his fire at George Cicciarello-Maher, who has been suspended by Drexel University without due process purportedly for his own safety after he received threats in response to Twitter posts about gun control.

Late in the piece Jilani quotes FIRE’s Adam Steinbaugh, who alerted us to the Whittier events and who is rightly skeptical of Drexel’s motives.  “When threats are made with the goal of silencing a speaker, taking institutional action against the speaker will demonstrate that threats will accomplish their goal,” Steinbaugh tells Jilani.  But Jilani himself never defends Cicciarello-Maher’s academic freedom, nor does he even mention the AAUP’s intervention two days earlier.  In a letter to Drexel administrators, AAUP associate secretary Hans-Joerg Tiede wrote that the suspension is at odds with normative academic procedures.  While pointing out, as would Steinbaugh, that Drexel’s action essentially surrenders to anonymous threats of violence, the letter noted that a suspension is a severely adverse personnel action, and imposing one on Ciccariello-Maher without consulting an appropriate faculty body raises concerns for his academic freedom and tenure.

But Jilani seems to care little about either Cicciarello-Maher’s rights or the broader threat to academic freedom posed by his suspension and by similar actions of weak-willed administrators elsewhere.  Instead, he devotes most of his space to joining the attack on Ciccariello-Maher, who he claims “is no fan of free speech.”  Jilani eagerly cites passages from the Drexel professor’s Twitter feed that allegedly “rail against the ACLU” for its support of free speech rights.  He claims that “Ciccariello-Maher’s Twitter feed is a long litany of provocative statements” and takes him to task for blocking his critics, including Jilani, on Twitter, while acknowledging that he himself has also blocked Ciccariello-Maher.  (Indeed, the piece reads more like a personal vendetta than either serious journalism or thoughtful advocacy.)

To all this any true supporter of freedom of speech and academic freedom will quickly respond, “So what?”  I don’t follow Professor Cicciarello-Maher on Twitter and I have read few of his writings, although his recent op-ed piece in the Washington Post is a cogent defense of his own rights. (I have, however, met him briefly at a conference.)  But I am pretty sure that I disagree with him on a few things, including the right of noxious racists to speak publicly.  But that’s not the point.  For even if Ciccariello-Maher would deny the right of free speech to some, many if not most of his targets would themselves likely deny the right of free speech to him — and to many others as well.  Let’s face it, Jilani’s “taste of one’s own medicine” approach could be applied just as well to Milo Yiannoupoulos, Ann Coulter, and Richard Spencer, all hypocritical and phony champions of “free speech,” as well as to some other less loony conservatives complicit with the campaign of targeted harassment of left-leaning and minority faculty members ignored by Jilani.

In the 1950s too many liberals accepted the anti-Communist crusade, with its blacklisting and summary dismissal of alleged Communists and former Communists, on the basis of the specious argument that if they came to power (unlikely, to say the least, at the time) these left-wingers would even more ruthlessly deny free speech to their opponents.  True or not, that attitude did much to facilitate one of the gravest assaults on civil liberties in American history — and handed a powerful weapon to opponents of such liberties on the political Right.  This is also the logic that some on the Left today have employed to justify the silencing of speakers they deem, rightly or wrongly, neo-fascists.  But it is also the logic employed by Jilani.  And it is a disastrous logic. The right to free speech protects the rights even of those who would deny that right to others.  And academic freedom protects the right of faculty members to speak as citizens, even when their speech is intolerant.

In short, Jilani misses the point.  He can criticize Cicciarello-Maher’s political views as much as he likes.  But, please, don’t tell us he’s getting what he deserves.  As I’ve previously argued, opponents of provocative speakers should go after their message and the cynicism of those who would provide a platform for that message in the name of “free speech.” But they shouldn’t go after their right to speak itself, even when those speakers disdain that right themselves.

Academic freedom and freedom of speech have more than enough enemies; they hardly need a “friend” like Jilani.

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4 thoughts on “On Missing the Point About Academic Freedom and Free Speech

  1. I read Jilani’s article differently. I don’t see anything in it that justifies punishing Ciccariello-Maher, just noting the irony of an opponent of free speech having his free speech shut down. Jilani cites the ACLU and FIRE on the importance of protecting free speech even for people who don’t believe in it. And Jilani notes that Drexel “condemned his comments — which itself is a soft restriction on speech anathema to the academic tradition.” That kind of recognition of the repressive potential of administrative condemnations is rare among journalists.

  2. I re-upped membership in the ACLU after the ACLU defended the right of George Lincoln Rockwell’s American Nazi Party to march in Skokie, Illinois (not far from where I grew up). I was well aware that if in power these neoNazis would not only try to silence me, but might well try to kill me. (Not long after that, the “Minute Men” did leave the message, “Tell Erlich, ‘The crosshairs are on the back of his neck.'”) Eh! At least back then and now, at least for a while, it’s not only right but good tactics to let the Tiki-Torch SA expose their views and agendas in public. Showing that you’re scared of them only encourages them.

  3. As a progressive I often find it very confusing the double standard that fellow progressives apply to situations. You don’t like to accept that your standards are a two way street. You would be fine with this type of lens being turned towards conservative commentators…. as you mention. But take issue with it being used against fellow progressives. Even worse, you have to question whether Zaid Jalani is indeed actually progressive. This type of behavior should be reserved for conservatives. I can’t stand seeing it from progressives, you are giving us all a bad name.

  4. Pingback: The National Review Defends Academic Freedom | ACADEME BLOG

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