Not Everything is Related to 9/11

Picketline led me to Findlaw where I find an article by Jennifer van Bergen, “a journalist with a law degree” entitled Speech on Campus After 9/11: Less Free Than It Used To Be?.

The piece’s thesis is clearly stated right at the top:

Universities have traditionally been places where debate and the free exchange of ideas have been welcomed. But after 9/11, that may be changing — as some recent, troubling incidents suggest.

In this column, I’ll survey some recent incidents suggesting free speech on campus is in peril, …

Exhibit A for this thesis is the UM administration’s reaction to the strike. And Ms. van Bergen, described elsewhere as a south Florida resident, appears to be serious.

I don’t get it.

Please don’t misunderstand: I am not here to defend the UM administration’s appalling conduct during and after the strike. If students were hauled in on charges and asked to identify each other from photos while being treated in an intimidating manner, that’s a violation of our rules (and would be without the intimidating manner, too).

Threatening students with serious consequences for their failure to disperse when ordered is petty and mean, not to mention disproportionate and stupid. Leaving the charges hanging after the strike, instead of resolving them with an amnesty or a wrist slap is unwise (from the administration’s viewpoint): so far it has only martyrized them, and will probably radicalize them.

But all this reflexive administrative behavior has nothing to do with 9/11. It has rather more to do with the flawed temperament of our leadership (either the Board of Trustees or President Shalala, or conceivably both) and the poor judgment and limited capacities of certain mid-ranking administrators. In short, your standard story of people in power unable to transcend petty impulses for revenge, and people in a bureaucracy displaying some really lousy judgment during a pressure situation — then digging in their heels when tempers should have cooled.

But this is the way of the world. People are imperfect. Academic authorities don’t like being forced to do stuff by uppity kids, and they never have. And the fact that the kids are right, and that they enlist noble outsiders to say they are right and to force it down the authorities’ throats, well, that doesn’t help.

But all this has nothing to do with 9/11. UM was like this ten years ago — indeed, arguably, it may have been substantially worse.

If anything — and I admit this is reaching a little — the UM experience with the recent strike proves the reverse of the van Bergen thesis. At one point the administration here tried to float the idea that students protesting were anarchists, or colluding with anarchists, or at least inviting in anarchists, who we were no doubt supposed to believe would in short order turn this pristine tropical campus into some Beirut on the Biscayne.

To the extent anyone paid attention to this silly idea, we just laughed, and it hasn’t been heard from since.

Free speech is not in peril on this campus, and we won’t let it be. At worst, its ankle is being bitten. Whether that bite turns out to be by a mosquito or a Doberman will turn on what sort of treatment the administration administers to the students it has up on charges. And that remains to be seen.

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6 Responses to Not Everything is Related to 9/11

  1. Simon Evnine says:

    Michael,

    I completely agree with your point here. But there has been at least one 9/11-related free speech issue on the UM campus. If you remember, right after 9/11, an Arab-American guy who worked as some kind of science technician, I think, was reported to have said something along the lines that OBL had given him a nice birthday present. (9/11 was his birthday.) Whether this was a joke or an incredibly off-color remark (or both) I have no idea. But the guy was fired. I haven’t followed up, but I don’t remember having seen anything about his having been reinstated. Do you know anything about this?

  2. Michael says:

    First I heard of it.

  3. wowie says:

    If a group of students at um wanted to start a club in support of obl’s ideology, would the administation allow them to do so? And what if this employee that um supposedly fired for comments in support of obl had decided to join the group? Would this too be grounds for termination? Would a public university have to provide such a club a forum?

  4. Simon Evnine says:

    Michael,

    Here’s a link to what might have been the Herald story, though the link to the Herald in this site is now dead: http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/fr/572244/posts.

    Simomn

  5. burt says:

    Clarify, is this “free speech” as in free software, or beer?

  6. wowie says:

    If um truly did fire somebody for voicing support for bin laden, what’s stopping the institution from firing those who support the illegal detainment and torture of detainees in the US war on terror? Might Shalala, a democrat, start firing those who voice support for a republican agenda calling for illegal, preemptive war? What if those fired are creating an uncomfortable work environment for democrats and others who believe in the rule of international law just by sharing that they hold a certain opinion? Would a supporter of other national liberation or insurgent movements that hold ideologies contrary to the goals of US empire find him or herself now unwelcome at um as either an employee or a student? um seems to be setting a dangerous precedent. an institution such as um should pride itself on welcoming all ideas no matter how unpopular they may be.

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