By John K. Wilson
AAUP Support for Protection from Foreign Libel Suits
The AAUP joined sixteen other organizations in calling for passage of the federal Free Speech Protection Act of 2008 (S. 2977). Modeled after legislation already passed in the state of New York, the act would protect American authors from libel suits filed in foreign countries with lesser protections for free speech.
The AAUP argues that passage of the Free Speech Protection Act is essential to protect the right of American authors to investigate and reveal wrongdoing anywhere in the world and to ensure that weaker protections for free speech elsewhere do not undermine First Amendment freedoms at home.
Guilty Pleas Benefit Academic Freedom
Mahtab Shirani, a University of Illinois at Chicago student, pleaded guilty this summer to sending a threatening email to administrators and faculty one day after the Northern Illinois University massacre earlier this year. Shirani’s message declared, “I’m aiming to kill as many as I can this is not a joke....After NIU, it’s UIC’s turn to face disaster. Sit back and relax now, you’ll get what you deserve.” Shirani will be sentenced to 10-16 months in prison. Shirani will pay more than $20,000 in restitution for security costs due her to note.
In another victory for academic standards (and academic freedom), the creators of numerous diploma mills, Dixie and Steven Randock, pleaded guilty and Dixie received a three-year prison sentence. These diploma mills have used threats of libel suits to try to suppress their academic critics, such as the courageous George Gollin of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (where gutless administrators tried to silence his anti-diploma mill website).
Bill Ayers Banned at the University of Nebraska
On October 17, 2008, the University of Nebraska at Lincoln announced that University of Illinois at Chicago education professor Bill Ayers would be banned from giving a mid-November speech on campus because of “safety concerns.”
University officials wouldn’t explain what these “safety concerns” are, probably because they were really concerned only about the safety of their jobs and their budgets. According to the Omaha newspaper, “An Omaha charitable foundation had announced it was pulling all of its contributions to the university. Several other donors also have indicated to university fundraisers that there could be a financial cost if Ayers speaks.”
Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman called for the university to ban the speech: “This isn’t even a close call. The university should immediately rescind the invitation.” Heineman claimed on Fox News, “There are hundreds of other nationally known experts who could come to speak.” That’s not the issue. Any censor can argue that there are other “experts” who can speak. It’s the suppression of free speech that matters.
Attorney General Jon Bruning declared: “I think it’s good news for the university. I don’t think there was any good way for the university to disassociate itself with his past.” It’s particularly sad when politicians like this help suppress academic freedom. It’s not the job of the university to disassociate itself from a speaker.
Wright Denied Northwestern Degree
Northwestern University’s decision to revoke an honorary degree it was planning to give to Rev. Jeremiah Wright in June is disturbing, and most disturbing of all is the explanation offered by the university: “In light of the controversy around Dr. Wright and to ensure that the celebratory character of Commencement not be affected, the University has withdrawn its invitation.”
Controversy is a terrible reason for any university to refuse to grant an honorary degree. The idea that Commencement is merely a “celebratory” event is also questionable. And why does controversy ruin a celebration? Perhaps Wright didn’t deserve an honorary degree, but once a university has followed proper procedures and granted one, it should never withdraw such an offer merely because the recipient is “controversial.”