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Professors defend right to speak their minds

EVAN CARAVELLI/Arizona Daily Wildcat
History and political science professor David Gibbs was accused of being a communist in a teacher evaluation form last year, prompting him to no longer discuss his personal beliefs in class. Gibbs believes that university faculty across the country are finding their opinions increasingly unacceptable and suppressed.
By Alexis Blue
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Monday, February 21, 2005
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Since being accused by one of his students of being an "anti-American Communist who hates America," associate history professor David Gibbs said he has tried to censor what he says in class.

But it's not making him a better teacher, he says.

Gibbs, who teaches history and political science, received the comment on a teacher evaluation form last year from a student who claimed he had contacted the FBI to investigate the professor.

While Gibbs once expressed his personal views and opinions in his classes, he now tries to keep them to himself in order to "avoid problems."

But Gibbs says he is worried suppression of views in public universities is becoming a "national trend."

That is also the concern expressed by supporters of a tenured professor at the University of Colorado, who is fighting to keep his job after making inflammatory statements about the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Professor under fire

Ward Churchill resigned as chair of the ethnic studies department at the University of Colorado last month after being widely criticized for comparing the victims of the World Trade Center attacks to Nazis in an essay about Sept. 11.

Colorado Gov. Bill Owens, a Republican, has since suggested Churchill give up his professor position as well, and the university is reviewing Churchill to see if he can be fired, according to The Associated Press.

Churchill has refused to apologize for his views, according to AP reports, and with the support of the Boulder Faculty Assembly, has said the principle of academic freedom allows him to express his opinion.

Churchill said in a statement he was not defending the terrorist attacks but suggesting U.S. foreign policy is responsible for death and destruction overseas, and "we cannot feign innocence to when some of that destruction is returned," according to the AP.

At the UA and at other universities nationwide, many teachers and students have defended Churchill, and although most have disagreed with the professor's comments, they said academic freedom must be protected.

"What (Churchill) said, in my opinion, is objectionable and ugly," Gibbs said. "But part of free speech is the right to offend and say ugly things. For him to be fired would be a threat to the First Amendment."

Kristin Kanthak, an assistant professor in the political science department, said while Churchill's claims might seem outrageous, he has the right to express them, especially in his writings.

"There's no reason to refer to dead people as Nazis, and people should be outraged," Kanthak said. But discussion, not employment termination, is the way to combat Churchill's words, she said.

"It's the old adage - the key to fighting ugly speech is more speech," Kanthak said.

For those directly affected by the Sept. 11 attacks, Churchill's claims are particularly painful.

John Roehm, a pre-pharmacy freshman, has an uncle who worked in the World Trade Center in New York, but his uncle wasn't at work on the day of the attacks.

For Roehm, comments like Churchill's are "out of line."

While he said he supports professor's rights to express their views, Roehm thinks Churchill's claims were unreasonable.

"If you're going to say something that outrageous and that off-base, then you've definitely crossed some sort of line," Roehm said.

But where that "line" is drawn remains a question.

Protecting freedoms

Thomas Christiano, a philosophy professor, said if Churchill is fired, it will have a chilling effect on the public university system.

"It would undermine one of the proudest parts of the American system," Christiano said. "The American university system is certainly the best in the world, and the reason why is because it has academic freedom."

But historically, academic freedom has not always protected professors.

In 1960, a University of Illinois professor was fired after writing a letter to the campus newspaper condoning premarital sex.

More recently, in North Carolina, an instructor was suspended after showing the film "Fahrenheit 9/11" the week before the presidential election.

The UA's Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure offer resources for UA professors who feel their freedom of speech has been threatened.

"Our role is to make sure that norms of academic freedom are upheld," said Jean Braucher, vice-chair of CAFT.

The elected faculty committee was formed to handle mainly two types of cases, Braucher said - those involving professors who say they have been wrongly denied tenure because they've expressed controversial views, and those in which professors claim they have been unfairly dismissed for their views.

Although CAFT rarely hears cases involving violations of academic freedom, it is important the committee remain intact to uphold faculty rights, said Braucher, a law professor.

Braucher said the debate over what professors ethically should say in class and what they legally can say are two different issues.

Therefore, even offensive speech - barring derogatory, racist or sexist comments directed at students - is protected by academic freedom, Braucher said.

But in the minds of some students and instructors, with freedom comes responsibility, and that responsibility sometimes means censoring views.

Staying neutral vs. voicing opinions in the classroom

Katharine Petersen, a political science graduate student and graduate teaching assistant, said she thinks it is important for instructors to present material in as neutral a way as possible.

She said she tries to keep her views to herself while teaching a class on national security policy.

Petersen said as an undergraduate she would often try to guess her professors' political preferences, but said, "I could never guess, and I always respected that."

Christiano said while he doesn't think professors should be required to hide their views, he tries to be objective in his undergraduate classes.

"I try to keep my own views out of the picture because I think it might be a little intimidating for students," Christiano said.

But some instructors said they might try too hard to keep their political opinions secret.

Kanthak said in trying to remain neutral in her political science classes, she tends to overcompensate.

She said she has gotten complaints on teacher evaluations that she was showing too much support for one political party, when she really belongs to the other.

Senior lecturer James Todd, also of the political science department, said he is up front about his personal and political opinions.

"I emphasize it won't affect (students') grades if they disagree with me," Todd said.

Gibbs said he doesn't think professors should have to censor their opinions, although he has done so in recent years.

"It certainly reduces the effectiveness of my teaching," Gibbs said.

Gibbs said he thinks many professors censor themselves, especially those who would otherwise be especially critical of the U.S. government and policies.

"I think there will be challenges to job security of professors who are seen as over-critical," Gibbs said.

While some students prefer their professors remain neutral, others would rather hear their instructors' views.

"I like to hear what they think. It keeps me open-minded," said Jared Smith, a chemical engineering sophomore.

Ashley Weston, a marketing sophomore said balance in the classroom is what's really important.

"I definitely think teachers need to be neutral and argue both sides," Weston said. "How can they expect students to (understand) and argue both sides if they don't?"

Weston said she thinks Churchill should be punished in some way for making inappropriate and "unpatriotic" claims, but suggested a temporary suspension might be more appropriate than employment termination.

Christiano said in a time when the country has been at war, many people are extra sensitive about comments that don't seem to be in line with government actions, which could explain why Churchill's comments have created so much controversy.

But Christiano said suppression of speech, no matter how critical or offensive, is a dangerous practice, and said open discussion is beneficial to the society.

Christiano said he thinks the environment at the UA is accommodating to a variety of viewpoints and can't imagine a professor being fired for having unpopular views.

"I don't expect it to happen here," he said. "But it's not impossible."

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