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Delivering American University's news and views since 1925.

| Saturday, October 25, 2014



AU’s war on free speech


ON STANDS NOW: Columnist Sarah Harvard brings to light how many students feel that their right to free speech on campus has been ignored.





Five decades ago, vision-led college students stood up against universities and governments for the practice of freedom, liberty and peace of all individuals. Universities were intellectual hubs of civic engagement in scholarly debates and political organizations. Today, universities are not the same; across the country, college students and professors are restricted in their free speech in classrooms, thus losing academic freedom. AU is no exception.

In 1961, determined, young lovers of freedom from several college student organizations stood against the status quo of racial segregation by riding on a bus together. They were known as Freedom Riders. Following this, there was the Free Speech Movement and the Kent State protest. Today, restrictions on free speech do not allow for students to take the same stands against the tyranny of the majority.

By suppressing free speech, AU is dispiriting potential leaders of the world from civic engagement. At a time when debates over foreign intervention, government spending, civil liberties and the rise of college tuition should make more young individuals inquire more about these issues, not less.

With a mono-political cultured campus, the majority of AU students underestimate the instances of repressed free speech in academia. I conducted a survey of a random sample of 125 anonymous AU students through SurveyMonkey, sorting the results based on whether or not they view themselves as a political minority. I asked them several questions on their thoughts, experiences and opinion on why free speech may or may not been repressed in academia.

For those who identified as a political minority in the survey, 50 percent said they either rarely or never participate in class discussions because of the fear of being shut down or mocked for their opposing viewpoints. Along with this, 66 percent believed that restrictions of free speech in the classroom hinders the academic integrity of their curriculum. In the situations of free speech repression, 10 percent of students said they were restricted by professors, 25 percent said they were restricted by students and 30 percent said they felt restricted by both.

For students who do not identify as a political minority, roughly 70 percent said they believe there is not a restriction of free speech in the classroom and 75 percent said they never experienced censorship in classes personally. Only 27 percent of students believe that free speech restrictions affects the academic integrity of their course.

Interestingly, 62.5 percent of students believe that students with opposing political views are more likely to be restricted of their free speech rights.

An issue that is often ignored is the repercussions of passionate professors who exercised their First Amendment rights. In my survey, 42 percent of students believed professors are more often subjected to restrictions of free speech.

Despite AU’s shameful history of former President Richard Berendzen making obscene calls to child care employees that involved sexually explicit comments towards children in 1990, Last year, Professor Lori Handrahan was undergoing research on ending impunity for child porn and was allegedly fired silently without much protest. Handrahan’s misfortunate consequence of free speech within academia demonstrates how professors are also subject to the fear of persecution in the classroom.

This case isn’t the only one at AU. School of Public Affairs Professor Jeffrey Schaler was allegedly fired for his “too philosophical as opposed to practical” lectures, according to one of his students. Pat Roux, a sophomore who took Schaler’s course, recalled when the professor announced that he was fired last spring.

“He thought that was kind of bull because he felt if people wanted to learn practical application they could go to the library and read a book,” Roux said. “If people want to learn stuff they should come to class to discuss ideas.”

Schaler’s students said that he felt that the department’s main reasoning was not on the teaching approach in his courses, but his actual personal views on certain matter.

“He also thought that [JLS department’s concern of Schaler’s teaching approach] was just a cover up for the fact they disagreed with his views on things and didn’t like him for it,” Roux said.

It’s a shame that an institution that deems it’s pride in it’s faculty and “wonk” culture will reprimand professors doing their job. There is no such thing as objectivity within a curriculum or a lecture by a professor – that is just a fact. However, there does need to be an opportunity to understand the truth in our academic curriculum.

If professors silence the voices of those who don’t agree with them, it eliminates the other side’s voice. Truth also withers when the administration puts professors into a situation of fear of repercussions for undergoing ground-breaking research or expressing their views on their specialization. Students will not have the ability to think critically about the lectures and readings of their courses due to the elimination and restriction on free speech in the classroom and academia.

Political incorrectness, hate speech and offensive remarks are what free speech critics use as a reason to implement speech codes. Although it’s done with good intentions, a violation of a constitutional right of free speech can increase to restrictions of other rights for the sake of sensitivity. With an institution that has been constantly ranked as one of the most politically active campuses in the country, what merit does that accolade hold if it only applies to the political views of the majority? Such restriction will allow the majority to decide what is right and what is wrong.

The concept of free speech is necessary in that it influences our college experience, much like those by the Freedom Riders, Free Speech Movement and Anti-War Movement. It is hoped that administrators at AU hope to see students as leaders in their respective fields; and if so, efforts to protect unlimited free speech would be a step in the right direction.

I chose to attend AU not only for its prestige, but because I wanted to be surrounded by peers who speak their minds on controversial issues in hopes of finding solutions for today’s problems to make for a better tomorrow. If the most promising students can’t be trusted to think or speak for themselves, then who can? Who will protect our words if our institution won’t? Nobody.

Sarah Harvard is a junior in the School of International Service.