Regarding NAS’ Argus Project
July 30, 2008
FIRE has received some criticism for my blog entry from yesterday regarding the National Association of Scholars' Argus Project. According to its press release, the NAS' project is intended not only to monitor issues of FIRE's concern, such as campuses that require ideological adherence to beliefs and run coercive residence life or orientation programs, but also to look for issues with which FIRE—a nonpartisan defender of free speech and academic freedom—is not concerned, such as "slights" to conservative students or ideological mission statements. Because of this bifurcated focus, one critic has suggested that since I wrote about the project in my blog entry, FIRE has somehow strayed from its mission.
Needless to say, I disagree with that assessment, but perhaps I should have been clearer.
I think that to the extent that any organization launches a project dedicated to monitoring and exposing abuses to basic liberties, it is a good thing for freedom on campus. Different individuals and groups obviously have varying motivations for monitoring problems on America's campuses. This is as it should be in a free society. Since FIRE is explicitly dedicated to defending expression from all viewpoints and due process for all people, regardless of belief or creed, we don't really care who has exposed a certain violation of freedom of expression, religion, or academic freedom, or what their other motives or interests may be. That's why FIRE regularly works with and talks to groups from all over the political spectrum, ranging from the various chapters of the ACLU to the Alliance Defense Fund.
The bottom line for FIRE is that when real violations of fundamental rights are exposed, we want to know about it. If a person or group who has uncovered an attack on fundamental freedoms also has other issues they want to promote, they have every right to do so. Unless they are arguing for censorship or other violations of First Amendment freedoms or due process, FIRE has no problem with their efforts. After all, if we did, we could hardly advocate for a "marketplace of ideas" with any credibility!
FIRE's record is one of consistently standing against campus abuses-no matter whose ox is gored. From our case at Citrus College in California (in which FIRE challenged a professor who offered extra credit to her students for writing anti-war letters to President Bush—pro-war letters were not acceptable—and then actually mailed them) to our case at the University of Delaware (in which the university operated a coercive reeducation program run through its Residence Life office, complete with punishment for students who refused to cooperate), FIRE has taken on overzealous administrators and teachers who abuse their power over students. To the extent that NAS' program will bring such abuses to light, it is a good thing.
We have also consistently defended—and will continue to defend—the rights of professors who are punished for what they believe or say, regardless of ideology or political affiliation. Some examples can be found at the University of New Mexico (in which FIRE defended a professor who faced discipline for saying "Anybody who blows up the Pentagon gets my vote" after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks), at Saint Xavier University (in which FIRE defended a professor who faced official reprimand for making anti-military comments), in our lengthy analysis of the University of Colorado's report on Professor Ward Churchill (in which we defended Churchill's right to make political statements), and at SUNY-Fredonia (in which FIRE defended a professor who was denied tenure explicitly because of his publicly expressed opinions on affirmative action and the university's Student Conduct Code). There are many more examples, as a quick look through FIRE's case archive will readily demonstrate.
To be clear: If NAS' project encourages universities to punish professors for their opinions, FIRE will oppose it in those cases, as we would anyone else with a similar agenda. If, however, the project serves merely to criticize professors for their scholarship, while that would certainly not be a FIRE issue, it is NAS' right to do so.
I hope this clarifies FIRE's stance for any readers I might have confused with my previous blog entry.