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The American Historical Association and Free Speech

Two and a half years ago, when an Organization of American Historians' committee, chaired by David Montgomery, was appointed to investigate threats to academic freedom on American campuses, David Beito, KC Johnson and I asked that it include threats identified by FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. Especially, we thought, the committee ought to investigate the threats posed by"speech codes." When the OAH committee turned a deaf ear to our request, we outlined"Why We Are Dissatisfied with the OAH's Report on Repression" here at the History News Network and pleaded for"Consulting All Sides on 'Speech Codes'" in the OAH Newsletter. In"Who's Undermining Free Speech on Campus Now?" we saw twin threats, one coming from outside the academic community and one that had emerged within it. Both David Horowitz's misnamed"Academic Bill of Rights" and"speech codes" threatened freedom of speech on our campuses, we argued.

A year ago, when the American Historical Association was slated to consider a resolution that opposed Horowitz's"Academic Bill of Rights" (ABOR), Johnson, Beito, and I proposed a substitute resolution that would have put the organization on record as opposed to both Horowitz's threat to academic freedom and to"speech codes." We set the stage in"A Time to Choose for the AHA in Philadelphia: Speech Codes and the Academic Bill of Rights." Both in meetings of Historians Against the War (HAW) and in the AHA's business meeting, there was substantial support for our substitute resolution, but it was defeated in both meetings. Some people argued that ABOR was a more pressing matter and that the two issues ought not be dealt with in the same resolution. My recollection is that no one actually spoke in favor of speech codes. Many speakers said:"I agree with you, but ...." or"I will support you next year on a separate resolution." So, the arguments against the substitute resolution carried the day. In good faith, all of us who had supported it voted in favor of the resolution against ABOR alone and that resolution passed unanimously. Beito, Johnson, and I reviewed that experience in"The AHA's Double Standard on Academic Freedom" in the AHA's Perspectives.

At this year's AHA convention in Atlanta, we are challenging all of those who said last year"I agree with you, but ..." or"I will support you next year on a separate resolution" with this resolution:


Whereas, The American Historical Association has already gone on record against the threat to academic freedom posed by the Academic Bill of Rights;
Whereas, Free and open discourse is essential to the success of research and learning on campus;
Whereas, Administrators and others have used campus speech codes and associated non-academic criteria to improperly restrict faculty choices on curriculum, course content, and personnel decisions; and
Whereas, Administrators and others have also used speech codes to restrict free and open discourse for students and faculty alike through such methods as"free speech zones" and censorship of campus publications; therefore be it

Resolved, That the American Historical Association opposes the use of speech codes to restrict academic freedom.

Although he continues to support our position, our colleague, KC Johnson, is not an official sponsor of the resolution we are offering at this year's AHA convention because he is not a member of the organization.

In order to get this resolution on the AHA business meeting's agenda, however, Beito and I have secured the endorsement of it from more than 30 members of the AHA. It is a remarkably diverse group of historians, who teach at institutions stretching from Prince Edward Island to Hawai'i and whose politics range from rather far to the left to rather far to the right.

As importantly, however, FIRE has just released its"Spotlight on Speech Codes 2006: The State of Free Speech on Our Nation's Campuses." The press release for it is here. The report surveys the current state of"speech codes" at U. S. News & World Reports' 100"Best National Universities," its 50"Best Liberal Arts Colleges" and an additional 184 major public universities, for a total of 334 institutions across the land. I urge everyone to read the report because what it finds is, simply, stunning.

Academic communities and people should not have to be told by the First Amendment that freedom of speech is an inalienable right, one that is essential to academic life and that the burden of justifying any curtailment of it rests entirely on those who would restrict it. Public institutions, however, are bound by the First Amendment to protect free speech in ways that private institutions are not. Despite that fact and despite federal court findings to its effect in case after case, nearly three-fourths of the public institutions surveyed have"speech codes" that restrict constitutionally protected speech - speech that would be protected anywhere in the United States outside the academic community. These self-imposed codes are both detrimental to academic freedom and - to put a fine point on it - simply unconstitutional.

In the private sector, many institutions pay lip service to academic freedom and freedom of speech with affirmed guarantees of it, but then betray them with unacceptable constrictions. FIRE's report finds those unacceptable restrictions in both public and private institutions arising in four forms. Three of them are overly expansive definitions of harassment, policies on tolerance, respect, and civility, and definitions of disorderly conduct. The other common and unacceptable form of restricting free speech in academic communities is the establishment of"free speech zones" in small and remote areas of the campus. Restricting free speech to such zones may serve the interests of administrators in keeping an orderly campus, but administrators are the creatures and servants of academic freedom. They've not typically been its guarantors.