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Campus Free-Speech Tests

April 01, 2003

War invariably puts stress on the tenuous boundaries between free speech, good taste and common sense. Fortunately for the health of this democracy, American college campuses roil with debate about where the lines should be drawn.

At a teach-in at Columbia University in New York last week, assistant professor Nicholas De Genova rooted for the defeat of the U.S. military and said he would "like to see a million Mogadishus" in Iraq. Common sense should have told the professor that most Americans would be enraged and repulsed by this reference to the 1993 killing of 18 American troops in Somalia's infamous "Black Hawk Down" incident. Yet De Genova, speaking as an individual on his own time, was within his rights.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday April 03, 2003 Home Edition California Part B Page 16 Editorial Pages Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Campus speech rights -- An editorial Tuesday misnamed as the Coast Community College District the district whose speech policies were struck down in court. It was the South Orange County Community College District.

Meanwhile, at Irvine Valley College in Orange County, the administration issued a heavy-handed warning to professors to avoid spouting their views on the war during class and to stick to their approved lesson plans. Here, common sense largely favors the college's administration.

Faculty members can be forgiven for overreacting to the memo; the Coast Community College District has a miserable record on free speech and lost two recent court battles. A federal judge confirmed the importance of campus debate last year when she struck down district attempts to stifle requirements that students get permission before using loudspeakers, handing out leaflets, hanging banners or posting notices on bulletin boards.

Into a campus thus primed for a free-speech battle, Vice President of Instruction Dennis White dropped a poorly worded memo, which said it was "professionally inappropriate" for the faculty to open up classroom discussions on the Iraq war unless the subject was "directly related to the approved course materials." The document, inspired by student complaints about instructors' classroom antiwar diatribes, provoked immediate faculty cries to protect academic freedom.

This time, though, campus administrators are within their rights. A professor of politics or Middle Eastern culture wants to take on the war? Fine. And most great professors could and should snatch up the subject to create a teachable moment on subjects that are tangentially related -- say, French history or the philosophy of Henry David Thoreau.

But academic freedom goes hand in hand with academic responsibility. Campuses offer instructors and students plenty of places and opportunities for freewheeling discussion -- even to present views that offend. But college students choose their classes because they want to gain knowledge in those subjects. Professors are hired for their ability to impart that knowledge, not to force their opinions down a captive audience's throat.

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