"Viewpoint Discrimination"

What makes an organization substantive? Why, in other words, should we pay attention to any particular group that has set itself up as a not-for-profit corporation and established a website? Most of us know of many that are not, certainly, all that they seem. David Horowitz, for example, founded Students for Academic Freedom—yet he hasn’t been a student in over forty years.

The other day I ran across an organization called “Fire” (the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education). It produced a press release last week with the heading “FIRE Warns Department of Health and Human Services Against Supporting Political Litmus Tests on Campus.” That, of course, set of a number of alarm bells in my head. Warns? That sounds rather threatening for a group claiming to protect. Litmus Tests? That has become code for what the right sees as academic leftist protectionism—it is not a phrase used so much by the left. And the very name of the organization, “Foundation for Individual Rights in Education” bothered me. What individual rights? Where are they impinged upon? The clincher for me was the use of the phrase “viewpoint discrimination” within the article. I had never heard it before, but I immediately connected it to recent rightwing attempts to force itself upon academia.

So I went to the group’s website to see if I were not jumping to conclusions.

FIRE’s Mission Statement starts off with this:

The mission of FIRE is to defend and sustain individual rights at America’s increasingly repressive and partisan colleges and universities.

What a sweeping statement! As someone who has only returned to academia in a substantial way within the last five years (after what was pretty much a twenty-year layoff), I noticed nothing, on my return, to indicate any increase in repression and partisanship over what there had been before—and, frankly, that had been very little. So, I wondered, what is going on here?

I looked at the Board of Directors. There, I saw that one of the founders, Harvey Silverglate, has been active in the ACLU and has worked for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Not bad! The other founder, Alan Charles Kors, is nothing if not a distinguished academic. The Board itself seems a usual mix, though a little weak on representation from academia. And the Board of Advisors, which does include more academics, also features Nat Hentoff, known for his dedication to freedom of speech, along with Roy Innis and Candance de Russy.

Wait a minute: Candance de Russy and Nat Hentoff on the same board? What’s going on here? Frankly, I don’t know. But this organization was beginning to bother me more and more. Silverglate and Kors wrote a book together called The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses. It came out in 1998—and it may be the source for the “shadow” meme that David Horowitz likes to use in his quests to unearth leftwing conspiracies. Yet, in its review (subscription required) of the book, The New York Times, in the person of Sam Tanenhaus, wrote:

To their credit, Kors and Silverglate are old-fashioned civil libertarians who support everyone’s right to sound off. While most victims of speech codes these days seem to be on the right, the authors also deplore attempts by Emerson College to censor the rap music played on the campus radio station.

Yet, as Michael Bérubé pointed out to me, FIRE doesn’t seem quite so even handed today, having failed to come to the defense (for example) of the Columbia University Middle Eastern Studies Program a couple of years ago when its professors’ right to free speech on campus was explicitly questioned by the university’s president.

Now, the debate over speech codes that seems to have generated The Shadow University (which I have not yet read) is a legitimate one. The issue has concerned Hentoff for a long time—and I use his essay “’Speech Codes” on the Campus and Problems of Free Speech” in my Composition classes to bring my students into the debate.

What I wonder about FIRE is if that’s the real issue for the organization. Maybe it, as much as the “shadow university” it imagines, has its own “shadow agenda.”

It would be easy to decide that this is a group of kooks and leave it at that. Lyndon LaRouche (himself quite a kook) publishes something called Executive Intelligence Review that contains a recent piece by Anton Chaitkin called “Who’s Who in the Goebbels Zoo” that damns Kors for connections with Lynn Cheney and the Bush family (he holds the George Herbert Walker chair of Intellectual History at UPenn) and claims that:

FIRE works toward firing dissident teachers.

While I suspect that claim is unfounded (to say the least), I still am not comfortable with FIRE. In the Background section of its Mission Statement is this passage:

America’s colleges and universities are, in theory, indispensable institutions in the development of critical minds and the furthering of individual rights, honest inquiry, and the core values of liberty, legal equality, and dignity. Instead, they often are the enemies of those qualities and pursuits, denying students and faculty their voices, their fundamental rights, and even their individual humanity. The university setting is where students are most subject to the assignment of group identity, to indoctrination of radical political orthodoxies, to legal inequality, to intrusion into private conscience, and to assaults upon the moral reality of individual rights and responsibilities.

While it is possible to find instances where particular institutions have gone too far (as in the Columbia one that FIRE ignored), for the most part FIRE has it completely wrong here. As so many on the right do, FIRE makes sweeping charges—but has only a few random anecdotes for backing them up.

Until FIRE can show me that it is commonly true that “students are most subject to the assignment of group identity, to indoctrination of radical political orthodoxies, to legal inequality, to intrusion into private conscience” I will continue to view the organization with suspicion.

After all, if such allegations were true, then we should be seeing millions of doctrinaire leftists stepping from our universities—and should have been, for decades now.

But we aren’t. For they aren’t. Which makes me believe that there really is a “shadow agenda” behind FIRE, something completely removed from questions of freedom of speech.

Nat Hentoff, I hate to bring this up, but I think you are possibly being duped.