FIRE on Columbia and Free Speech

When Minuteman founder Jim Gilchrist had his speech disrupted and overrun by protestors a month ago, I wrote the following:

And mark my words, Columbia won't do a thing about it. Not a single student will be disciplined for their actions.

When Columbia President Lee Bollinger, himself a noted first amendment scholar, issued a strongly worded letter eloquently defending free speech, calling the incident "one of the most serious breaches of academic faith that can occur" at a university and promsing "full accountability by those found to be responsible", I hoped i would be proven wrong in that prediction. It's looking more and more like I won't be.

The NY Post has an editorial where they point out that Columbia refuses even to discuss the alleged investigation going on:

More than three weeks have passed since Columbia University hosted one of the most brazen attacks on free speech and academic freedom in recent memory. Since then, not a word of apology has been offered to those whose rights were trampled, nor an ounce of punishment meted out to the offenders.

The only thing, in fact, that Columbia's administrators have done is to assure students, alumni, faculty and others who care deeply about the university that an "investigation" is under way.

But with weeks gone by and a public relations office deflecting calls on the matter, it's starting to look like the term "investigation" may be a euphemism for "cover-up."...

Apart from some boilerplate rhetoric immediately after the attack, university President Lee Bollinger has had little of substance to say.

There has been no formal apology to Gilchrist.

There has been no invitation for him to return to Columbia for a do-over.

Bollinger - though a First Amendment specialist - certainly has not been pounding his bully pulpit.

And Columbia won't even discuss the investigation.

Likewise, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education weighs in:

Columbia's continued silence regarding the internal "investigation" it insists is currently ongoing bodes ominously for free speech at Columbia. Instead of using the disruption as an opportunity to establish Columbia as an institution that values and protects freedom of expression on campus, the silence from President Lee Bollinger and Columbia's leadership is deafening.

I agree. It's possible that this investigation will yet lead to some actual action against those students that violated the rights of both the speaker and the audience, but I highly doubt it (and if it does, I will praise them as loudly as I am criticizing them now). But for now, I'm standing by my prediction: despite all the lofty rhetoric, not a single student or student organization will be punished for what they did. And that's why this sort of thing goes on as often as it does on college campuses, because nothing is ever done about it.

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And the people they said siddown,
siddown you're rockin' the boat,
and the people they said siddown,
siddown you're rockin' the boat.

Siddown, siddown, siddown, siddown,
siddown you're rockin' the boat.


The standard academic response to any kind of misbehavior -- particularly misbehavior that (a) seems to be directly in conflict with the open thinker image that academia wants to maintain, and (b) can be seen as a systemic, rather than "single bad apple", problem, is to cover it up and make it look like a single bad apple problem, or to try to deflect attention in order to preserve the image.

Repeated reports at multiple institutions suggest that this is VERY often what happens with complaints from women about differential treatment, or about a bad climate. Yeah, there are privacy concerns and so forth, but the information is often hugely hushed up to avoid making the institution as a whole look bad.

Close ranks. Protect the image. Don't be divisive. Etc. We hear about this in the brotherhood of police officers, we've seen it in the groupthink bandwagon of the Republican Party (now, and the Democratic Party as well at times), and, yes, it happens in bastions of open inquiry and free thought as well.


While I agree that a coverup at Columbia would be a terrible outcome (and it looks to be a distinct possibility at present), lets not go off the deepend Rob. Faculty are the most fractious lot of souls you will ever meet and there is no way you are going to get a 'close ranks' response in an academic institution. Ask any administrator about trying to corral faculty into some common goal; its not pretty. Faculty thrive on being 'divisive' and many revel in simply tweaking the status quo.

Statements like:

VERY often what happens with complaints from women about differential treatment

simply don't stand up to reality. The women faculty wouldn't 'shut up' or 'close ranks' to keep it quiet. And the vast majority of faculty recognize that in some disciplines there is an underepresentation of women (others with minority status as well, but I'm focusing on Rob's particular example). There is terrible disagreement about the cause of that and the solution, but few would worry about 'Protect the image.'

By Scott Reese (not verified) on 31 Oct 2006 #permalink

I'd be interested in people's opinions about what more Columbia should be saying about an on-going student misconduct investigation. Columbia's refusal to disclose the details of a pending investigation is exactly the proper stance, press dissatisfaction notwithstanding.


Two things. First, they certainly shouldn't be naming any names until they've decided on the course of action to be taken, but they can at least talk about what it is they're actually doing. They've got it all on videotape, so identifying who is involved and what they did is relatively easy. At that point, it's just a question of deciding how to handle it. And that shouldn't take all that long, it seems to me. Second, the silence is a side issue as far as I'm concerned. The real issue is that I just don't think they're going to end up doing anything at all. If they do, I'll certainly applaud them. But I'd put money on my original prediction that there will be no punishment handed out for this. And that's why it continues.

"They've got it all on videotape, so identifying who is involved and what they did is relatively easy. At that point, it's just a question of deciding how to handle it. And that shouldn't take all that long, it seems to me. Second, the silence is a side issue as far as I'm concerned."

There are several reasons it might take a while to impose discipline on the students involved. First, I would never advise someone to take action solely on the basis of a videotape without interviewing witnesses. Second, it is probable that under Columbia's rules the students have certain due process rights such as notice and a hearing, before they can be disciplined. Even if the Administration knows what it wants to do about it, going through the required procedural steps and affording the students their rights likely will take some time. Finally, federal law is very protective of student confidentiality, and refusing additional comment on an on-going investigation is likely the most prudent thing to do.

You may or may not be right that Columbia isn't going to do anything in the end, but I don't think the currently available information supports that view.

Could be they have identified several students and discovered that one or more comes from a family that donates big sums to the U. That would throw a wrench into the process (sadly). When is the last time you heard of a courageous, principled stand on the part of a university president?

On another note, what sort of punishment would you recommend for the free speach deniers? I trust it would be something short of expelling them.

No, I would not expell them. Frankly, I think they should be prosecuted for disorderly conduct and disturbing the peace, at the very least. If there is a more specific law that applies to violating the rights of others, use that. That would bring with it at least community service and probation. If it's found that this was planned by a specific student organization, which I think is likely the case, that group should be suspended from receiving the kind of normal support such groups get for perhaps a year, prohibited from using school facilities, and so forth. Not life-ruining punishment, but enough to make them think twice before doing it again.

That seem reasonable, Ed. Those are police actions, though, in which case shouldn't the police have been called in from the start and the matter turned over to them? Seems to me that once kids are 18 they should be treated as adults, but I don't know how the law works in this case. Wouldn't the speaker or the group that brought him to campus have to file charges?

It depends on the local arrangement. Many campuses have their own police force. I have no idea what the arrangement is at Columbia.

You can see the video from the riot here:

It seems that leftists don't like the freedom to speak what they don't like themselves.

And try not to *headdesk* when you read this:

Press Release by Members of the International Socialist Organisation:

We celebrate free speech: for that reason we allowed the Minutemen to speak, and for that same reason we peacefully occupied the stage and spoke ourselves. Our peaceful protest was violently attacked by members of the College Republicans and their supporters, who are the very same people who invited the Minutemen to our campus in the first place. The Minutemen are not a legitimate voice in the debate on immigration. They are a racist, armed militia who have declared open hunting season on immigrants, causing countless hate crimes and over 3000 deaths on the border. Why should exploitative corporations have free passes between nations, but individual people not? No human being is illegal.


Peaceful my ass. At least Danish academia is peaceful (altough blatantly left-leaning) compared to the shit i see going on in the States...

Peter Bjørn Petlsø,

Calling this a "riot" is unnecessary hyperbole. Students went up on stage with a banner and started chanting. That's not a riot. It was wrong but not violent. And extrapolating from this one instance to say "leftists don't like the freedom to speak" is also wrong.

"More than three weeks have passed"

You may be correct that no one will ultimately be punished. But anyone who has spent any time in academia knows that three weeks is like the blink of an eye in relation to how long it takes for any fact-finding and decision-making process to be completed.

By PhysioProf (not verified) on 01 Nov 2006 #permalink

...three weeks is like the blink of an eye in relation to how long it takes for any fact-finding and decision-making process to be completed.

Yes, but knee jerk reactions are much more dramatic than deliberative action. Why do you think that this would be so ponderous? The inertia of experience?

By double-soup tuesday (not verified) on 01 Nov 2006 #permalink

"Why do you think that this would be so ponderous? The inertia of experience?"

To ask this question suggests that you have never participated in an academic bureaucratic decision-making process.

By PhysioProf (not verified) on 02 Nov 2006 #permalink