FIRE Letter to Penn State University President Graham Spanier, October 24, 2001
October 24, 2001
October 24, 2001
Graham B. Spanier
Pennsylvania State University
University Park, PA 16802
Re: Professor Stephen G. Simpson
Dear President Spanier:
As you know, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of liberty, legal equality, freedom of expression, and, in the case of Professor Stephen G. Simpson, free speech and academic freedom on America's college campuses. Our web page, www.thefire.org, will give you a greater sense of our identity and of our activities.
We were deeply impressed by the assistance that you rendered liberty and academic freedom in the case of both the Sex Faire and the YAF chapter last year. Consistency on these matters has been rare, indeed, in the academic world, and the current times teach us yet more forcefully of the urgency of such consistency. It is with confidence, then, that we address ourselves again to your principled leadership and understanding.
We are profoundly alarmed by the threat to free speech and academic freedom posed by the decision of the Vice Provost for Academic Affairs to single out Professor Simpson's website for its content, in this specific case, support of the "war on terrorism." It is liberty, of course, not specific viewpoint that concerns us, and we are defending faculty at other institutions who have been targeted for their opposition to that national policy. In light of the current crisis, it is crucially important, now more than ever, that we affirm our cherished Constitution and ideals and not abandon them in order to suppress views that University administrators find offensive.
FIRE is in possession of a copy of an e-mail of September 21 from Robert Secor, the Vice Provost for Academic Affairs, to Professor Simpson. The Vice Provost criticized Professor Simpson's website for having endorsed the position of Leonard Peikoff, who supports an aggressive military campaign against the countries that support terrorism. The Vice Provost took the extraordinary step of condemning Professor Simpson's statement of his views on American policy, which constitutes, of course, core political speech in its purest form, for being "insensitive" and "intimidating" to students.
As you know full well, Pennsylvania State University is a public university and therefore has an overarching legal obligation, in addition to its moral obligation, to ensure the First Amendment rights of its faculty. If this were a simple exchange among colleagues, we would be unconcerned by and, in fact, supportive of the frank exchange. However, coming from the top tier of the University administration and from a position that is charged with the preservation of academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas, the message that this action sends is disturbing. In particular, the statement that his website is "insensitive" and "intimidating" threatens possible future action through the University's code of conduct. Even if no formal retaliation ever takes place, the mere threat of action based on opinion, viewpoint, and political content promotes self-censorship among faculty and students alike, chilling both protected speech and academic freedom. This, of course, runs completely contrary to the role and constitutional obligations of the Vice Provost for Academic Affairs.
What is all the more extraordinary is the remarkable hostility towards a specific viewpoint demonstrated by the Vice Provost's actions. Customarily, the administration does not take a position on a professor's website or on his or her expression of core political beliefs. By singling out one website that supports the war, while passing over in silence numerous other websites that express views that might well be "extreme" and "insensitive" in the eyes of others, the Vice Provost demonstrates that only certain views are unthreatened at Pennsylvania State University. As the Supreme Court ruled in the landmark case of West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette (1943): "If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith [in it]." The Court concluded that "the purpose of the First Amendment to our Constitution" was precisely to protect "from all official control" the domain that was "the sphere of intellect and spirit." The remarkable double standard that the University has shown here, if allowed to stand, would not speak well of its respect for these high ideals and would open the door for administrators to decide what constitutes an "acceptable political belief." The Vice Provost for Academic Affairs may not threaten protected speech that the sons, daughter, brothers, and sisters of our soldiers might find offensive or hostile, even when these persons are students at Penn State; equally, he may not threaten the protected speech of those with whom he has political disagreements under such unconstitutional criteria.
Accordingly, FIRE requests you and your administration affirm to Professor Simpson that his opinions are fully protected under the First Amendment and the canons of academic freedom. Normally, we ask an institution to restate its commitment to the ideals of robust debate and discussion, which, of course, requires the unthreatened expression of all viewpoints. Our confidence in your leadership leads us here to ask only that you remind your administration, and the campus, of the principles that you already have articulated and reiterated on numerous occasions.
Despite those articulations and reiterations, it is obvious, alas, that there still are administrators at Pennsylvania State University who do not understand that singling out certain viewpoints for official disfavor and threat will not only chill the speech of your faculty and students, but will also result in a chilling effect across education as a whole. A university in which students and faculty have any fear of reprisal for discussing controversial topics is one that is rendered impotent to address society's most crucial issues.
FIRE hopes we are able to resolve this dispute discreetly and amicably. However, FIRE will stay with this case with persistence and resolution. We are categorically committed to using all of our media and legal resources to support Professor Stephen Simpson and to see this process to a just and moral conclusion. Please spare Pennsylvania State University the embarrassment of fighting against the Bill of Rights and against the canons of academic freedom, by both of which it is legally and morally bound. As we all have learned immeasurably in these recent times, a free society is a precious thing, not to be abandoned.
I look forward to hearing from you.
Alan Charles Kors
cc: Robert Secor, Vice-Provost for Academic Affairs
Wendell V. Courtney, General Counsel
Rodney Erickson, Provost and Executive Vice President