Monday, January 19, 2009

The AAUP and Speech Codes

Mike Adams claims in a townhall column that "literally every time a member of the AAUP gets involved in a free speech case, the motivation is one of politics not principle." I'd love to see Adams try to prove this point by noting the AAUP's official response to cases, or by examining my own involvement (since I'm an AAUP member) in free speech cases. Unfortunately, Adams' column reflects that smears that are all too often directed at the AAUP.

Adams' column was sparked by a comment by Cary Nelson at the National Association of Scholars conference that he would be willing to work with other groups to stop unconstitutional speech codes. That comment brought a press release by ACTA, and various blogs from Erin O'Connor, NAS, FIRE, the Pope Center, ACTA, and a report in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

It's true that the AAUP has done little to help student rights (just as it's true that FIRE has done little to help faculty denied due process in tenure cases, which is an AAUP specialty). That needs to change; the AAUP should be more involved in speaking out against cases, despite its long history of moving slowly to defend faculty and rarely at all to defend students. But the AAUP did move to create an excellent statement on student rights long before any conservative groups cared about the issue, and that 1967 statement remains the best statement of student rights. And it did issue a statement against speech codes in the early 1990s.

The failure of the AAUP has been inaction, not having the wrong principles. And the AAUP needs to start acting, and recognize that standing up for the freedom of everyone at a university is crucial to defending the freedom of faculty as well.

The inaction of the AAUP caused by its conservative elements on the staff who want to narrow the AAUP's mission allowed FIRE to succeed as a strong defender of student rights. FIRE just recently announced a new campaign of legal threats to campuses and administrators with speech codes, a symbol of FIRE's frustration at being unable to end speech codes. Unfortunately, FIRE's approach has only had limited, albeit real, success. There are so many bad speech codes enforced badly by so many repressive administrators that FIRE's threats of lawsuits and public embarrassment rarely have a preemptive effect in fixing speech codes, although they often can stop a particular abuse.

So what's needed to end speech codes that violate student rights? First, all of these groups should be endorsing the 1967 AAUP statement on student rights, and urge campuses to adopt a version of it. Second, the AAUP should be creating model language for codes of conduct (and then convince campuses to adopt it) that do not violate student rights. FIRE and other groups have yet to tell colleges exactly what they should be putting in campus codes in order to avoid violating student rights, and as a result administrators tend to imitate the same bad speech codes found around the country, or use the language of older campus speech codes which are often vaguer and more repressive than the current speech codes which draw the ire of conservative groups.

The AAUP succeeded in transforming faculty academic freedom in America by presenting specific guidelines for tenure and due process, and convincing colleges to adopt their recommendations, word-by-word. And colleges were happy to have good advice which helped them avoid trouble. Now it's time for the AAUP to do the same for student free speech on campus.

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