M. Jackson Group Update – March 2021 – Academic Free Speech

A collection of postings on a range of issues is available on our website (www.mjacksongroup.ca).  This month’s post is again from Ken Pope’s listserv, where he kindly provides daily summaries of current articles in the field. 

The Chronicle of Higher Education includes an article: “A New Group Promises to Protect Professors’ Free Speech” by Wesley Yang.
Here are some excerpts:

[begin excerpts]

When I spoke to the Princeton University legal scholar and political philosopher Robert P. George in August, he offered a vivid zoological metaphor to describe what happens when outrage mobs attack academics. When hunted by lions, herds of zebras “fly off in a million directions, and the targeted member is easily taken down and destroyed and eaten.” A herd of elephants, by contrast, will “circle around the vulnerable elephant.”

“Academics behave like zebras,” George said. “And so people get isolated, they get targeted, they get destroyed, they get forgotten. Why don’t we act like elephants? Why don’t we circle around the victim?”

George was then recruiting the founding members of an organization designed to fix the collective-action problem that causes academics to scatter like zebras. What had begun as a group of 20 Princeton professors organized to defend academic freedom at one college was rapidly scaling up its ambitions and capacity: It would become a nationwide organization. George had already hired an executive director and secured millions in funding.


In the summer, George emphasized that the organization must be a cross-ideological coalition of conservatives, liberals, and progressives who would be willing to exert themselves on behalf of controversial speakers no matter which constituency they had offended. 

Though the funding for the organization came from a primary conservative donor, and many of those who feel most besieged in today’s academic environment are on the right, the threats to academic freedom were myriad — and did not threaten only those on the right. 

A principled defense of core values would require scrupulous neutrality in application and significant participation from across the ideological spectrum. “If we were asked to defend Amy Wax, we would,” he said. “If we were asked to defend Marc Lamont Hill, we would.”

Today, that organization, the Academic Freedom Alliance, formally issued a manifesto declaring that “an attack on academic freedom anywhere is an attack on academic freedom everywhere,” and committing its nearly 200 members to providing aid and support in defense of “freedom of thought and expression in their work as researchers and writers or in their lives as citizens,” “freedom to design courses and conduct classes using reasonable pedagogical judgment,” and “freedom from ideological tests, affirmations, and oaths.”

The alliance will intervene in academic controversy privately, by pressuring administrators, and publicly, by issuing statements citing the principles at stake in the outcomes of specific cases. Crucially, it will support those needing legal aid, either by arranging for pro bono legal representation or paying for it directly.


“Universities know,” George told me, “that university faculty can’t afford to fight city hall or the university, so they know they can do anything to these people without any consequences. So we’re going to shift that — so that the university general-counsel offices will know that the university is in the fight of its life if it violates academic-freedom rights.”

All members of the alliance have an automatic right for requests for legal aid to be considered, but the organization is also open to considering the cases of faculty nonmembers, university staff, or even students on a case-by-case basis. The alliance’s legal-advisory committee includes well-known lawyers such as Floyd Abrams and the prolific U.S. Supreme Court litigator Lisa S. Blatt.

When I spoke to him in February, as the date of AFA’s public announcement drew closer, George expressed surprise and satisfaction at the success the organization had found in signing up liberals and progressives. “If anything we’ve gone too far — we’re imbalanced over to the left side of the agenda,” he noted wryly. 


The yield was higher, as George would learn, quoting one such progressive member, because progressives in academe often feel themselves to be even more closely monitored for ideological orthodoxy by students and activist colleagues than their conservative peers. 

“You conservative guys, people like you and Adrian Vermuele, you think you’re vulnerable. You’re not nearly as vulnerable as we liberals are,” George quoted this member as saying.

“They are absolutely terrified, and they know they can never keep up with the wokeness. What’s OK today is over the line tomorrow, and nobody gave you the memo.” 

George went on to note that some of the progressives he spoke with were indeed too frightened of the very censorious atmosphere that the alliance proposes to challenge to be willing to affiliate with it, at least at the outset.
Some of the founding members from outside of Princeton include Randall L. Kennedy, Orlando Patterson, Jeannie Suk Gersen, Janet Halley, and Cornel West at Harvard; Brian Leiter and Dorian S. Abbot at the University of Chicago; Sheri Berman at Barnard; Patricia Nelson Limerick at the University of Colorado at Boulder; and Kathryn L. Lynch at Wellesley.


He cited the case of Jeffrey J. Poelvoorde, an associate professor of politics and the sole Orthodox Jewish faculty member of a small college in South Carolina. Poelvoorde refused to attend mandatory anti-racism training in the wake of the George Floyd protests — he was the only one of his colleagues to refuse. “My quarrel is not so much with the content of these materials the administration would impose on us, but rather the coercive imposition itself,” Poelvoorde wrote in a letter to administrators at Converse College.

“They told him they would fire him, they would revoke his tenure,” George told me. “He stood up to them, we came in and provided legal and moral support, and after a whole lot of Sturm und Drang, they completely caved, backed down, and exempted him.” 

“These are the stories people don’t know,” George went on to say. “Everyone knows the stories of people getting destroyed — the struggle sessions, the abject apologies. … But here’s a case where somebody stood up to the bullies and won.”


Nadine Strossen, a New York University law professor and former president of the ACLU, emphasized the problem of self-censorship that she saw the alliance as counteracting. “When somebody is attacked by a university official or, for lack of a better term, a Twitter mob, there are constant reports from all individuals targeted that they receive so many private communications and emails saying ‘I support you and agree with you, but I just can’t say it publicly.’”

She hopes that the combined reputations of the organization’s members will provide a permission structure allowing other faculty members to stand up for their private convictions in public. 

While a lawsuit can vindicate someone’s constitutional or contractual rights, Strossen noted, only a change in the cultural atmosphere around these issues — a preference for open debate and free exchange over stigmatization and punishment as the default way to negotiate controversy in academe — could resolve the overall problem.

The Princeton University political historian Keith E. Whittington, who is chairman of the alliance’s academic committee, echoed Strossen’s point. The recruitment effort, he said, aimed to gather “people who would be respectable and hopefully influential to college administrators — such that if a group like that came to them and said ‘Look, you’re behaving badly here on these academic-freedom principles,’ this is a group that they might pay attention to.”

“Administrators feel very buffeted by political pressures, often only from one side,” Whittington told me. “They hear from all the people who are demanding action, and the easiest, lowest-cost thing to do in those circumstances is to go with the flow and throw the prof under the bus. So we do hope that we can help balance that equation a little bit, make it a little more costly for administrators.”

Whittington, who is the author of Speak Freely, a book-length defense of free speech that was assigned to every incoming Princeton freshman in 2018 as that year’s required “preread,” took a cautious attitude toward the amount of the difference he thought the organization could make.


“I don’t want to be Pollyannish,” Whittington said. “It’s a difficult environment, and university administrators are under pressure to react to these isolated cases. And often university administrators are simply not very committed to academic freedom.”

But he regarded the initial membership yield with satisfaction. “We were hoping to find a few dozen faculty members across the country. We wound up with nearly 200.” He also noted that once the organization establishes a track record, he hopes it can become a mass-membership organization.
Accompanying the announcement of the alliance’s founding is an essay by one of its members, Lucas E. Morel, professor of politics at Washington and Lee University. 

Morel observes the intense emphasis placed by the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass on the centrality of free speech to his cause.
When I spoke to him last week, Morel argued that Douglass’s faith that “truth must triumph under a system of free discussion” was at the very heart of the university. 

It was a terrible irony, he said, that some of the most vehement opposition to open discussion was coming from within the university itself.
Morel cited his own experience participating in a Zoom debate with the Northwestern University historian Leslie M. Harris over “The 1619 Project” as an instance of the erosion of good-faith truth-seeking. 


“These were two tenured professors speaking about what they know about,” he said, noting that the debate was a perfectly civil and collegial exchange of views between himself and Harris — though continually interrupted by students photo-bombing the proceedings with signs bearing denunciations of the very existence of the debate. 

“If I had to be there physically, who knows what could have happened?”
The peroration of Morel’s essay crisply summarizes the ethos of the organization through the words of the great abolitionist:

“We intend to remind universities of the principal way to fulfill their mission, which is to protect the right of free speech throughout every academic discipline, as well as administrative or staff position. Let us declare with Frederick Douglass, ‘There can be no right of speech where any man … is overawed by force and compelled to suppress their honest sentiments.’”

[end excerpts]

Ken Pope

TARGETED: SURVIVING SOCIAL MEDIA ATTACKS by Hector Adames, Nayeli Chavez-Dueñas, & Ken Pope
Ethics in Psychotherapy & Counseling: A Practical Guide, 6th Edition by Ken Pope, Melba J.T. Vasquez, Nayeli Y. Chavez-Dueñas, & Hector Y. Adames (publication date June 2021—John Wiley & Sons currently accepting preorders & faculty requests for evaluation copies)
A Human Rights & Ethics Crisis Facing the World’s Largest Organization of Psychologists by Ken Pope
“The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it.  If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”—John Stuart Mill (1806-1873)