Videos from the Stanford Academic Freedom Conference

December 4, 2022 • 10:45 am

The videos for the Academic Freedom Conference, held at Stanford on November 4 and 5, have now been collected at one YouTube site. There are 17 of them.  At the time, I though I’d write a lot about the various talks, but somehow I wasn’t inspired to do so. I was suffering from insomnia (still am), and had very little energy. But you don’t need my commentary, for you can watch all the videos, which include Q&A sessions, and in effect attend the conference vicariously. I’ll put up the video of the one panel I was in, about (the lack of) academic freedom in STEM, and excuse me for self-aggrandizement, though I was far from the best speaker in this group.

The speakers below include Mimi St. Johns, a Stanford undergraduate in computer sciences, who gave a great talk, as well as my friends Anna Krylov (physicist, USC), Luana Maroja (evolutionary biologist, Williams College), and me. Bari Weiss was there and got Luana to write up her talk for publication on Bari’s Substack. Luana and I have similar views on the infiltration of biology by ideology, and are collaborating on an article about the issue.

Other talks you might find interesting—even if you dislike the speakers or their politic—include Douglas Murray and Jordan Peterson’s discussion about “The War on the West” (Murray was on Zoom from the UK), “Academic Freedom and What is it For?” with Greg Lukianoff, Nadine Strossen, Rick Shweder, and Hollis Robbins, “Rationality and Academic Freedom” with Steve Pinker, and the last panel, which comprised four academics who had suffered professionally for speaking out: “The Cost of Academic Dissent,” with Amy Wax, Joshua Katz, Elizabeth Weiss, and Frences Widdowson. (I’ve given links to the talks and discussions.)

If you wanted to go but couldn’t, well, pick your topics.

Our College Dean responds to threats and calls for cancellation of a class on the “Problem of Whiteness”

November 22, 2022 • 10:45 am

On November 9 I described a proposed University of Chicago course, “The Problem of Whiteness”, to be taught under the aegis of CRES (“Critical Race and Ethnic Studies”). The course was brought to national attention—publicized, as usual, by right-wing venues like this one—via the tweets of one of our undergraduates:

As I described, the course was postponed for one quarter after, according to WBEZ, the instructor received death threats and other disturbing email. According to WBEZ, the postponement gave time for the course to develop a “safety plan”, which it may well need!

Rebecca Journey, a teaching fellow who earned a Ph.D. in anthropology from UChicago, said her class analyzes whiteness as a social construct and dismissed “disingenuous” claims that it stokes “anti-white hatred.” She’s pushing the course to the spring quarter to give university officials time to develop a safety plan for her and her students.

Journey’s response in the article is good with one caveat: she called Schmidt a “cyberterrorist”, which is inflammatory and sets faculty against student. Not that I am a fan of Schmidt’s, though!  For as I described at the time, and still believe, while the course troubles me as a harbinger of “theory” affecting Universities throughout the U.S., as well as a potential chilling of speech here, in the end this is a matter of academic freedom.  Faculty members can teach what they want so long as it’s approved by the curriculum committee. I wrote this:

Although I don’t like the tenor of this course, which seems both anti-white and divisive, I cannot demand that it be canceled. What an instructor decides to teach is a matter of academic freedom, and if her department approves the course, it’s their call, not mine.  I of course worry that the University of Chicago will become as woke as some of its peers, which regularly teach courses like this, but while I can criticize the effect and content of such courses as socially inimical, I cannot and will not call or lobby for the course’s elimination or demand that the instructor be criticized—much less threatened—for teaching it.

Our University responded in a way that makes me proud—and in the usual manner—by defending the instructor’s desire to teach the course because to do otherwise would be to suppress our principles of free speech and academic freedom. And, as in its refusal to punish geophysical science professor Dorian Abbot for posting videos criticizing DEI efforts, the University doesn’t name the faculty member. (Abbot was the subject of a petition, signed by many faculty, students, and alumni, basically calling for his head on a plate.)

On November 15, John Boyer, Dean of the College, presented the statement below to the College Council, a group of elected faculty that meets regularly and deals with University affairs. The doings and sayings of the College Council are confidential, but I went to the administration asking permission to reproduce Dean Boyer’s statement, which they granted. I quote it below. The bolding is mine.

I wish to address the troubling phenomenon of cyber-bullying and classroom intimidation.  Recently an incident occurred on our campus involving cyber-bullying where the clear purpose was to change or limit the content of a course or the expression of ideas by students or instructors by means of the mobilization of anonymous threats and public harassment.

Strong engagement from students and colleagues about fundamental academic issues is one of the defining virtues of the University of Chicago.  This encompasses the right to debate the intellectual content of courses and the way we choose to teach courses, and is not only expected but welcomed as part of the extraordinary vitality of our educational practices and traditions.

Yet our traditions of the freedom of expression presume that this engagement takes place in the open realm of ideas and robust deliberation, with the purpose of articulating the best ideas and persuading others of their logic and substance.  Coercion of any kind must play no role in such debates.   Mass social media is an especially complex area of deliberation, in that it can enable outsiders who do not share these ideals to seek to influence the design and process of instruction, and often in ways that do not respect the safety, security, and autonomy of our campus community.  

In today’s climate we must reaffirm that our faculty have complete discretion over what they choose to teach and how they present material.   Similarly, our students have the freedom to select courses that best support their academic development and preferences.  

We will permit neither outsiders nor insiders to claim control of any part of our curriculum or to intimidate any member of our community in practicing their rights to free expression.   Intimidation, whether overt or covert, anonymous or named, is destructive to the core values of this University.

John W. Boyer

Boyer is referring here not to normal criticism or pushback, but to “intimidation”, i.e., threats to or harassment of the instructor. Note that Schmidt will not of course not be punished for what he tweeted, nor, I think, will anybody else, though threats of harm and death should surely be investigated.

And so we beat on, boats against the current of authoritarianism and the wokeness of the Online Mob.

Some videos of the Academic Freedom Conference up

November 13, 2022 • 11:15 am

Some of the videos of the Academic Freedom Conference are now up, but rumors are they won’t be for long. (I think they’ll eventually all be up on YouTube). Click on the screenshot to see the available videos; you can access them by clicking on any link that has “video” by it.

Go to the site by clicking on the screenshot below.

And I have to give a plug for our hour-long panel on Academic Freedom in STEM. You can go to the video by clicking on schedule below or on my screenshot below that.

Have a listen. I leave myself out of the evaluation, but Mimi, Anna, and Luana all did a good job, and Luana turned her 8-minute talk into a nice piece on Bari Weiss’s site.

There are other talks you may want to hear, too. For a start, I’d recommend Jon Haidt’s talk (like all of us, he’s been demonized for merely appearing at this conference), while some of the other interesting ones aren’t up yet.

“The Problem of Whiteness” course postponed (but not canceled) at my university

November 9, 2022 • 10:15 am

Some time ago, a conservative second-year student at the University of Chicago discovered that a course called “The Problem of Whiteness” was going to be taught this winter. The student, Daniel Schmidt, who has about 30K Twitter followers and describes himself on the platform as “Sophomore @UChicago. Exposing insanity at an elite university. ‘Right-wing college activist’ — Media Matters”, emitted several tweets describing the course and giving bit of the syllabus. The instructor is white and the course is falls under “Critical Race and Ethnic Studies” (“CRES”). Here are two of Schmidt’s tweets.

Of course this caused a social-media fracas, with people getting all hot and bothered and writing the university in protest. I even hear that the instructor, Rebecca Journey (named in the article below), received email threats, but I can’t verify that.

Although I don’t like the tenor of this course, which seems both anti-white and divisive, I cannot demand that it be canceled. What an instructor decides to teach is a matter of academic freedom, and if her department approves the course, it’s their call, not mine.  I of course worry that the University of Chicago will become as woke as some of its peers, which regularly teach courses like this, but while I can criticize the effect and content of such courses as socially inimical, I cannot and will not call or lobby for the course’s elimination or demand that the instructor be criticized—much less threatened—for teaching it.

Nevertheless, as this article in Inside Higher Ed reports, the instructor has, of her own volition, postponed the course until Spring. This is likely a result of the public pushback, though it also may be due to the low prospective enrollment (zero students).

A bit of the article:

The University of Chicago is still offering a course called The Problem of Whiteness, which attracted negative attention online, but it will do so a term later than originally planned—in the spring instead of the upcoming winter quarter.

It’s unclear just what prompted the course delay. The instructor, Rebecca Journey, a teaching fellow in anthropology, did not respond to a request for comment.

In a public statement affirming its commitment to academic freedom, the university said Journey asked to push back the class.

Well, something’s wrong here, because the link above doesn’t say anything about Journey and the class, but merely restates, in the words of Dean Boyer, our principles of academic freedom. I would be surprised if the University had any comment on a specific course. The article goes on:

A description of the University of Chicago course in question says, in part, that “Whiteness has long functioned as an ‘unmarked’ racial category, saturating a default surround against which non-white or ‘not quite’ others appear as aberrant. This saturation has had wide-ranging effects, coloring everything from the consolidation of wealth, power and property to the distribution of environmental health hazards. Yet in recent years whiteness has resurfaced as a conspicuous problem within liberal political discourse. This seminar examines the problem of whiteness through an anthropological lens, drawing from classic works and contemporary works of critical race theory.”

The course became a target for critics earlier this month after Daniel Schmidt, a sophomore on campus with 30,000 Twitter followers, tweeted about it as an example of “anti-white hate.”

“Rebecca Journey, a ‘cultural anthropologist,’ who, ironically, appears to be white, will teach it,” Schmidt tweeted, listing Journey’s photo and Chicago email address. “The course description describes whiteness ‘as a conspicuous problem within liberal political discourse’ with ‘worldmaking (and razing) effects.’ Anti-white hatred is now mainstream academic inquiry. And you’re not even allowed to call that out without being called racist.”

Schmidt posted an apparent screenshot of the course’s registration information, which at the time listed zero students enrolled.

Several days later, Schmidt tweeted another apparent registration screenshot showing the class had been canceled.

“Thank you to everyone who shared my thread,” he said. “We are obviously fighting an uphill battle, but this is a huge victory. Students need to call out anti-white hatred whenever they see it. Just the beginning.”

Of course Schmidt has every right to say what he wants about the course, and that may affect how people see the University of Chicago. That’s proper counterspeech. But there’s also academic freedom, which gives Journey every right to teach her course so long as she adheres to the normal principles of pedagogy. (That, of course, doesn’t mean every course can be taught: teaching creationism in public schools and universities, for instance, has been banned by the courts as an exercise in religious propaganda prohibited by the First Amendment.)

I was glad to see that FIRE (The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression) agrees with me:

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression soon weighed in on this case, saying that while it had learned that the course was actually rescheduled for spring and not canceled, it still had concerns—especially (but not merely) because Chicago has a strong reputation for protecting academic freedom.

“U Chicago told us the class was not canceled, but the instructor had simply ‘chosen to move’ the course to the spring term. All good? Maybe…” FIRE said on Twitter. “Administrators can inappropriately pressure a professor to cancel or delay a class in hopes that a controversy will die down. We don’t have evidence that happened here, but in these cases, transparency is paramount so academics don’t fear teaching controversial material.”

Alex Morey, director of campus rights advocacy at FIRE, told Inside Higher Ed Tuesday that the University of Chicago “doesn’t appear to have exerted any pressure on this professor to cancel their course, which is great and exactly what we expect from a top school for free speech. But other sources of pressure on faculty are also common these days. For example—from legislators or Twitter mobs, who sometimes threaten the professor’s funding or even their safety.”

Given the current polarized political environment, Morey said, “universities should urgently re-evaluate what it means to support a professor through a controversy over their teaching. It likely needs to go beyond just saying their speech is protected. Sadly, that may look like taking interim measures to ensure their safety, like providing their class meetings police protection, so they can continue their important work without delay. That’s what it may take these days to preserve faculty’s rights. Universities and faculty senates should have this on their radar.”

Here’s one of FIRE’s tweets on the issue:

If academic freedom means anything, it means what FIRE says above, and what John Stuart Mill said 223 years ago about freedom of expression: it must not be censored because it exposes people to ideas they don’t like. I don’t particularly like (or agree with) the idea that whiteness itself is toxic, or that all white people are racist unless they are actively antiracist, or that whiteness is the dominant theme of academia, reason, or science, but these ideas aren’t vanishingly rare, either. Let the students take Journey’s course and judge for themselves (if they’re open-minded going in, of course!).


UPDATE: I don’t know if I’ll say much about the Stanford conference on academic freedom until the YouTube videos are released so you can see for yourself, but it’s already been widely attacked. Even this article in Inside Higher Ed is somewhat of a hit piece, concentrating mostly on the more demonized and controversial speakers. Click to read:

An Academic Freedom Declaration

November 3, 2022 • 11:30 am

A group of academics has signed a statement, “Restoring Academic Freedom“, addressing the chilling of academic discourse by ideological pressure, and suggesting solutions to this problem. It’s several pages long, so see the whole thing at the link above. I’ve put below (indented bit) excerpts from the document.

As of this morning, 641 people had signed the document. The signers include me and a gazillion people from various universities and fields. The desire for academic freedom, with truth not bent to conform to ideology, is strong!

As always, I ask people to refrain from defaming those who signed on the grounds that some co-signers are considered odious or ideologically impure. All that the signers have in common is that they’re academics or STEM people and that they agree with the sentiments of the document.

From the introduction: a bit about the issue:

Unfortunately, academic freedom and freedom of speech are rapidly declining in academic institutions, including universities, professional societies, journals, and funding agencies. Researchers whose findings challenge dominant narratives find it increasingly hard to get published, funded, hired, or promoted. They, and teachers who question current orthodoxies, are harassed in person and online, ostracized, subjected to opaque university disciplinary procedures, fired, or canceled by other means. Employment, promotion, and funding are increasingly subject to implicit or explicit political litmus tests, including approval from bureaucrats seeking to impose a social agenda such as specific views of social justice or DEI principles. Activism is replacing inquiry and debate.  An increasing number of simple facts and ideas cannot even be mentioned without risk of retribution.

Public high-profile victims are the tip of the iceberg. An atmosphere of fear and self-censorship pervades academia. Many faculty and students believe they cannot voice their views, question dogmas, investigate certain topics, or question the loss of academic freedom without risking ostracization and damage to their careers. Knowledge is lost, and many talented scholars are leaving academia. 

Universities and professional societies are failing to resist such illiberal forces–which have arisen many times throughout history, from all sides of the political spectrum –and to defend academic freedom and freedom of speech. 

Many universities and professional organizations now qualify their support for freedom: free speech, they say, so long as the speech does not offend or exclude; free speech, so long as it does not challenge institutionally approved narratives and conceptions of social justice; free speech, but only within narrow credentialed boundaries. These restrictions are counterproductive, even to their goal of advancing a particular ideology. People infer from censorship a desire to protect lies from being exposed. Historically, censorship has supported monstrous regimes and their ideologies. Bad ideas are only defeated by argument and persuasion, not by suppression. True justice and freedom cannot exist without each other.

And possible solutions:

What can be done?

We call for all Universities, academic associations, journals, and national academies to adopt the “Chicago Trifecta,” consisting of the Chicago Principles of free speech, the Kalven Report requirement for institutional neutrality on political and social matters, and the Shils report making academic contribution the sole basis for hiring and promotion.  

The Kalven report emphasizes,  “To perform its mission in society, a university must sustain an extraordinary environment of freedom of inquiry and maintain an independence from political fashions, passions, and pressures.’’  The University and its administrative subunits must abstain from taking position on the political issues of the day:  “While the university is the home and sponsor of critics, it is not itself the critic and therefore cannot take collective action on the issues of the day without endangering the conditions for its existence and effectiveness.” 

“The neutrality of the university as an institution arises … not from lack of courage nor out of indifference and insensitivity.  It arises out of respect for free inquiry and the obligation to cherish a diversity of viewpoints.”

We also call for faculty to create (or join existing) non-partisan associations, aimed at defending these values on campus, and at a national level such as FIRE, the Academic Freedom Alliance, Heterodox Academy, FAIR and ACTA. Professional organizations should prioritize the defense of academic freedom and free speech of their members. 

Many universities have officially adopted the Chicago Principles. Robust structures must be developed to uphold these principles. Faculty under fire from student groups, other faculty, deans and administrators, or university staff, must be able to effectively assert their freedom of speech and inquiry by appealing to those statements. 

Universities must deploy safeguards to ensure that administrators work to uphold these principles rather than to undermine them.  University disciplinary procedures must become transparent, following basic centuries-old protections of the accused such as the right to see and challenge evidence, confront witnesses against them, the right to representation, and innocence until proven guilty. 

University leaders must also promote and institutionalize free speech and academic freedom by concrete actions. Freedom is a culture, not merely a set of rules, and a culture must be nurtured. Free speech, free inquiry, tolerance for opposing views, meeting such views with argument, logic and fact, abstaining from ad-hominem attacks, character assassination, doxing and other unethical behavior must be highlighted in the orientation materials for all new students and employees. Freedom comes with a culture of responsibility, but responsibilities are better enforced by social norms than by extensive rules enforced by non-academic bureaucrats.  If community members or groups petition school leaders for the sanction or punishment of a faculty member or a student for expressing their point of view, university leaders should publicly and clearly respond with a statement affirming that the University is a place to discuss and debate all views, and that an attempt to punish others for having “incorrect” views is incompatible with the community standards of the school.  The University should also commit to all students, faculty, and employees, that it will not punish or sanction free expression.  

A note on the Stanford Academic Freedom Conference

October 27, 2022 • 9:00 am

I’ve already posted about the upcoming meeting on Academic Freedom at Stanford that takes place November 4 and 5.  The first link shows the schedule of events and names of the participants.

At the time I posted, I wrote this:

The good news is there are a lot of people whom I want to meet, many of them of the “heterodox” stripe. Some of these people I find sympatico, others I don’t care for at all, but I like the idea of the meeting and want to hear some of these folks. Be aware that some speakers have been extensively canceled or demonized, but I refused to be tarred by going to the same meeting with them, so please refrain from that.

You probably know, if you keep up with academic stuff, which speakers have been deemed beyond the pale. Indeed, some of these I disagree with or have found some of their actions offensive. (I’m not going to name names, as that’s irrelevant.) Because of their presence, I’ve been asked by several readers to remove myself from the conference on two grounds:

1.) My reputation will be tarred because I’m speaking at a conference where these other people are speaking.

2.) My very presence will lend credibility to the “miscreants” speaking at the meeting.  (This is like saying—if you’re a liberal—that Ross Douthat’s columns in the NYT devalue all the other columnists.)

These two sentiments were expressed again by one reader who wrote me this morning, urging get to withdraw from the meeting:

 I saw your name appear in an article about the upcoming Stanford conference on Academic Freedom, and I hope you will reconsider your participation.  You have a solid reputation as someone who speaks his mind and is honest in his arguments.  That is, even people who disagree with you see you as a good faith actor.  On the other hand, the same is not true for some of the people who are also on the conference invitation list, and I am concerned that your name good name will lend credibility to people who do not deserve it and that your reputation will suffer from the association with them.

. . .  Letting your name be associated with these folks can do you no good, nor can it help efforts to actually advance the cause of free expression in the academy.  I realize that there are several appealing features of the conference; some of the other invitees are impressive, and Stanford is often fun to visit.  I hope, however, that you will reconsider.

I am pretty sure that these sentiments will be pretty common. I predict that the mainstream media and many on social media will deem the entire conference a conclave of bigots, racists, and transphobes because a few people on the schedule have been called those names. Indeed, Steve Pinker himself has been the object of criticism, and has been called a racist; and I (deemed “someone with a solid reputation who speaks his mind and is honest in his arguments”) have also been called a transphobe and a racist. Hardly anybody is immune!

The fact is that any conference on academic freedom worth attending will have people in it who could be used to smear the reputations of the “honest brokers”.  There are entirely too many accusations of “guilt by association” these days, as some people look for any reason to tear down those with whom they disagree.

I did not decide on (or see) the schedule of speakers before I agreed to participate. Were I to hold such a conference, there are a few people I wouldn’t have invited. But they have been invited, and if you find them offensive as a person, don’t listen to them. (That might be your loss.)  I for one will be listening to everyone and making up my own mind about what they say at the meeting, independently of how I regard their past speech and actions but also noting whether what they say comports with what I know about what they’ve said in the past.

So let me state this clearly: I am going to the meeting and I will speak on academic freedom in science on a panel on November 4. My topic will be how ideology is distorting biology, something I’ve written about on this site many times before.

And let me be clear about this, too:  My views are my own, and my presence at the conference does not imply endorsement of any of the other speakers. If you deem me as somehow “tainted” because I’m on the bill with some people regarded as unsavory, that is your own decision, but it’s a viewpoint that’s both unfair and incurious.

Make no mistake about it: you will hear a lot of dissing of this meeting by people who object to the speakers, and you’ll see people criticized for being on the schedule with others judged “unacceptable.” To all of you, I say this: “judge each speaker’s presentation by what they say at this meeting. If you want to criticize somebody in advance for what they’ve done or said in the past, that’s fine. But please don’t heap the sins of a few upon everyone else.”

I am going because I have something worth saying (I think) about the corruption of biology by ideology, and why it’s so common. I also want to see several of the participants whom I haven’t had the pleasure to meet.

It seems to me almost unnecessary to say these things, but the modern tendency to deprecate others because of they’re somehow associated with the Demonized (even just being in their presence or speaking at the same meeting) is not only widespread, but deeply unhealthy.  Judge each of our talks by its content, not by whether you’re offended by other people speaking over the same two-day period.

Livestream of upcoming academic freedom conference

October 24, 2022 • 1:00 pm

I previously announced and described the meeting on academic freedom on November 4 (Friday) and November 5 (Saturday) at Stanford University, and also gave the schedule of events.  Now, according to the announcement below (click to read), you can livestream it, seeing all the talks (and a panel with PCC[E]) in real time. (They’ll also be archived on YouTube.) Big fun, and the Woke are sharpening their knives and fangs. The site below reprises the schedule and speakers. Be there or be square!


h/t: Edward

Academic freedom meeting at Stanford

October 21, 2022 • 12:30 pm

The Stanford Business School is having an academic freedom conference on Friday, November 4, and Saturday, November 5 at the business school’s Knight Management Center at Stanford. The good news is there are a lot of people whom I want to meet, many of them of the “heterodox” stripe. Some of these people I find sympatico, others I don’t care for at all, but I like the idea of the meeting and want to hear some of these folks. Be aware that some speakers have been extensively canceled or demonized, but I refused to be tarred by going to the same meeting with them, so please refrain from that.

The bad news is that the meeting is by invitation only, and I don’t think those who aren’t speaking, or haven’t been invited, can attend. (I think this is the policy of the Classical Liberalism Initiative, which is sponsoring the conference.) I’ll be speaking as part of one panel.

Click on the screenshot to see the details:

The conference description:

Academic freedom, open inquiry, and freedom of speech are under threat as they have not been for decades. Visibly, academics are “canceled,” fired, or subject to lengthy disciplinary proceedings in response to academic writing or public engagement. Less visibly, funding agencies, university bureaucracies, hiring procedures, promotion committees, professional organizations, and journals censor some kinds of research or demand adherence to political causes. Many parts of universities have become politicized or have turned into ideological monocultures, excluding people, ideas, or kinds of work that challenge their orthodoxy. Younger researchers are afraid to speak and write and don’t investigate promising ideas that they fear will endanger their careers.

The two-day Academic Freedom Conference, arranged by the organizing committee, aims to identify ways to restore academic freedom, open inquiry, and freedom of speech and expression on campus and in the larger culture and restore the open debate required for new knowledge to flourish. The conference will focus on the organizational structures leading to censorship and stifling debate and how to repair them.

A summary of the events, which are sequential rather than concurrent


Talk by Jon Haidt, “Why it has gotten harder to find the truth.”

Panel: “Academic freedom in STEM” with Anna Krylov, Luana Maroja, Mimi St. Johns, and me

Keynote speech: Peter Thiel

Panel: “Academic freedom: practical solutions” with Richard Lowery, Dorian Abbot, John Hasnas, and Peter Arcidiacano

Lunch talk by Lee Jussim: “The radicalization of the academy”

Panel: “Are the humanities liberal?/How to liberate them” with Solveig Gold, Joseph Manson, John Rose

Panel: “The economics of academic freedom” with Niall Ferguson, John Cochrane, and Tyler Cowan

Panel: “The state of higher ed: USA, UK, Canada” with John Ellis, Gad Saad and Eric Kaurmann


Panel: “Academic freedom applications: climate science and biomedical sciences” with Steve Koonin, Bjorn Lomborg, and Jay Bhattacharya

Talk:  “The war on the West”, Douglas Murray

Panel: “Academic freedom: What is it and what is it for?” with Greg Lukianoff, Nadine Strossman and Richard Shweder.   I’m especially looking forward to this one, as Greg is President of FIRE, Nadine Strossen is past President of the ACLU (now a professor at NYU Law School), and Richard Shweder is my colleague at the Law School here.

Lunch talk by Scott Atlas

Talk by Steve Pinker: “An (unnecessary) defense of reason and a (necessary) defense of universities’ role in advancing it.

Panel: “Academic freedom in law and legal education” with Ilya Shapiro, Michael McConnell, an Eugene Volokh

Panel: “The cost of academic dissent” with Joshua Katz, Frances Widowson, Amy Wax, and Elizabeth Weiss

I’ll take notes and report back on stuff of interest when I return. (I’ll be out of town for about nine days, as I’m visiting friends in Davis beforehand; posting will be light during that time.)

The University of Idaho tries to restrict faculty speech on abortion

September 30, 2022 • 9:30 am

Idaho is one of those states that enacted draconian abortion bans after the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision. Here’s how the law in that state is described by the Center for Reproductive Rights:

On August 25, Idaho began enforcing its trigger ban, which prohibits abortion at all stages of pregnancy, with exceptions for the life of the pregnant person and for survivors of rape and incest who have reported the incident to law enforcement. following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade in the case Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.  However, the state is prohibited from criminalizing medical providers who provide abortion care to pregnant people in emergency situations pending the outcome of the Department of Justice’s lawsuit against Idaho on the theory that the trigger ban violates the requirement of the federal Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (EMTALA). EMTALA requires hospitals that receive Medicare funds to provide stabilizing treatment to patients regardless of their ability to pay.

. . .Idaho retains targeted regulation of abortion providers (TRAP) laws  related to facilities, which was held to be unconstitutional, and reporting. Idaho law continues to restrict the provision of abortion care to licensed physicians and still restricts the use of telemedicine for medication abortion. Providers who violate Idaho’s abortion restrictions may face civil and criminal penalties.

The criminalization of abortion in this way has caused a chilling of speech about abortion. A report from the Academic Freedom Alliance (click screenshot below), notes that the University of Idaho’s legal department tried to regulate faculty speech on the topic:

The Academic Freedom Alliance (AFA) today sent a letter to the University of Idaho responding to a guidance memo from the university’s general counsel regarding faculty compliance with the state’s new abortion laws, particularly the memo’s guidance that faculty should “remain neutral on the topic” of abortion during classroom discussions. The general counsel’s memo warns that, due to new state laws against abortion, those found to be “promoting” abortion could face penalties including mandatory loss of state employment, bars on future state employment, prison time, and fines.

The University of Idaho is a state University, and thus academic speech falls under the aegis of the First Amendment.  Promoting choice (i.e., advocating breaking state law) is not a violation of the First Amendment, and, if there is a discussion of this in the classroom, there can be no Constitutional way to prevent a professor from expressing his or her opinion one way or the other.

The AFA’s letter to the University, from Keith Whittington, chair of the academic committee, lays out the reasons why this chilling of speech is unconstitutional:

It is well established that public universities like the University of Idaho are constrained by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The federal courts have specifically recognized that classroom speech by professors is constitutionally protected. Keyishian v. Board of Regents, 385 U.S. 589 (1967); Demers v. Austin, 746 F.3d 402 (9th Cir. 2014). The Demers court specifically held that “teaching and academic writing that are performed ‘pursuant to the official duties’ of a teacher and professor” at the university level is protected under the First Amendment. The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit just months ago emphatically reaffirmed that the First Amendment does not tolerate state actions “that cast a pall of orthodoxy over the classroom” or that “stifle[s] a professor’s viewpoint on a matter of public import.” Quite simply, “the First Amendment protects the free-speech rights of professors when they are teaching.” Meriwether v. Hartop, 992 F.3d 492, 505 (6th Cir. 2021).

As for the law’s prohibition of the use of public funds (i.e., professorial salaries) to “promote abortion,”) that too is unconstitutional.

It is true that the Idaho Code § 18-8705 prohibits the use of public funds to “promote abortion,” but construing that statutory language to require state university professors to “remain neutral on the topic” is a vast overreach and inconsistent with the requirements of the First Amendment. The U.S. Supreme Court has emphasized that a law is constitutionally invalid “if it prohibits a substantial amount of protected speech.” United States v. Williams, 553 U.S.

. . . When Congress criminalized not only conduct involving criminal facilitation or solicitation but also pure speech involving abstract advocacy, the courts have concluded that the First Amendment requires that those statutes be applied narrowly so as to exclude pure speech such as the kind of promotion of abortion that might occur in a classroom discussion. “The statute’s plain language is ‘susceptible of regular application to protected expression,’ reaching vast amounts of protected speech uttered daily.” United States v. Hernandez-Calvillo, 39 F.4th 1297, 1313 (10th Cir. 2022). In such circumstances, the restriction of classroom teaching on topics relating to abortion through the criminal law is impermissible under the First Amendment.

Ergo, if a professor says, “I favor unlimited abortion,” she is not violating the law.  You might think it would be different if the professor tells students that if they are pregnant they should get abortions, but I suspect that, too, is legal speech, for the prof is merely expressing an opinion and not facilitating or soliciting abortion.

In the end, the AFA says it takes no position on the legal regulation of abortion, but asks that the University of Idaho rescind its “required neutrality” regulation in favor of telling faculty that they have the right of free expression, including with respect to this law. The AFA also “calls on state official to swiftly clarify that the state criminal law should not be interpreted to apply to classroom discussions that do not involve the facilitation or solicitation of unlawful acts”:

The general counsel’s guidance sends a chilling message to every member of the faculty who must discuss difficult and controversial material relating to abortion as part of their teaching duties. The statute itself might not recognize “academic freedom [as] a defense to violation of law,” but the First Amendment is an overriding limitation on the power of the state legislature to impose such a restriction on classroom teaching in state university classrooms.

University of Washington professor disciplined for posting a non-compliant “land acknowledgment” on his syllabus, sues the university.

July 14, 2022 • 11:45 am

While “land acknowledgments”—in which organizations admit that they’re operating on land stolen from indigenous people—are becoming quite common, I have no truck with them. They are paragons of Woke virtue signaling: an admission that one’s predecessors did wrong, but are never accompanied by reparations or attempts to give the land back. In other words, you talk the talk but don’t walk the walk.

Sociologists of the future will have a field day analyzing the epidemic of these claims, many of which are historically inaccurate and all of which are groveling and patronizing (i.e., land was “stolen” sequentially several times before now). At any rate, if all you do is indict your institution for stealing land, I don’t take you seriously, for it’s dead easy to remind people of a bad history without rectifying it (and you can rectify it by paying the group from which you stole the land or, better yet, giving back the damn land).

Yesterday the Wall Street Journal reported on Stuart Reges, a professor of computer science at the University of Washington (“UW”; a public university), who struck back at land acknowledgments by posting a deviation from the officially recommended claim on his syllabus. For that he was disciplined, and now he’s suing UW for violating his freedom of speech:

Click to read:

The report:

Stuart Reges, who has taught at the university since 2004, claims in the suit that administrators are discriminating against him because of his viewpoint challenging Native Americans’ historic ownership of the land, and are using an unconstitutionally broad speech policy to pursue disciplinary action against him.

The university in 2020 included on a list of best practices for diversity a suggestion that faculty add a “land acknowledgment” to their course syllabi and offered recommended language: “The University of Washington acknowledges the Coast Salish peoples of this land, the land which touches the shared waters of all tribes and bands within the Suquamish, Tulalip and Muckleshoot nations.”

This is close to being compelled speech, for if you deviate from that exact statement, you can get in trouble. And you can get in extra big trouble, as did Reges, if you make up your own land acknowledgment:

At the University of Washington, Mr. Reges instead posted near the top of his syllabus for an introductory course over the winter: “I acknowledge that by the labor theory of property the Coast Salish people can claim historical ownership of almost none of the land currently occupied by the University of Washington.”

In other words, Mr. Reges says, citing philosopher John Locke’s theory that those who improve upon land own it, the Coast Salish people historically owned nearly none of the campus land.

Reges was then asked by an administrator to remove the statement from his syllabus as “offensive” and creating a “toxic environment”. (It would have made me investigate Locke.)  As it was an introductory course with several sections,the punishment opened alternative non-Reges-taught sections, erased his statement from his syllabus, and then started assembling a committee to consider disciplining him. Good old FIRE went into action:

Mr. Reges, who isn’t tenured, is represented by lawyers from the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression [FIRE], a group devoted to free-speech issues on campuses and beyond. FIRE calls Washington’s policy unconstitutionally broad and vague.

“The university’s conduct here runs on a collision course with the First Amendment,” said FIRE staff attorney Katlyn Patton.

The suit, filed in federal court in Seattle, seeks to have the University of Washington end any alleged retaliation against Mr. Reges, including potential discipline by the committee, and to eliminate its policy governing speech and conduct.

University spokeswoman Michelle Ma said Wednesday that the school is reviewing the complaint, and “continues to assert that it hasn’t violated Stuart Reges’ First Amendment rights.”

FIRE’s position is the same as mine on this. (I add that I wouldn’t do what Reges did, as that kind of tomfoolery doesn’t belong in the classroom.) Once the University invites faculty to put a land acknowledgment on their syllabi, they cannot then mandate the words of that acknowledgment. Nor can they mandate how an acknowledgment is construed. Indeed, you can’t really say that Reges is wrong or is lying, for according to Locke’s theory, UW does own the land. (In contrast, if you tell lies on a syllabus or in a class, you can be disciplined). Thus I consider Reges’s statement, unwise as it was, to be permitted speech under the First Amendment.

Indeed, other faculty that deviated from the specified land acknowledgment were not disciplined, and you can guess why—because they acknowledged theft of the land. Only the one statement asserting that under a certain theory the land wasn’t stolen was the statement whose author was disciplined. I see that as a clear violation of the First Amendment, and as compelled speech: forcing faculty who make land acknowledgments to agree with a certain position about the land.

The to and fro:

The suit, filed in federal court in Seattle, seeks to have the University of Washington end any alleged retaliation against Mr. Reges, including potential discipline by the committee, and to eliminate its policy governing speech and conduct.

University spokeswoman Michelle Ma said Wednesday that the school is reviewing the complaint, and “continues to assert that it hasn’t violated Stuart Reges’ First Amendment rights.”

. . . . Victor Balta, a spokesman for the University of Washington, said in March that faculty aren’t required to post a land acknowledgment. He added, “Commonly utilized land acknowledgments are not politicized statements about land claims or ownership nor expressions of personal viewpoints about land ownership, but are rather statements of fact.”

No, they are not statements of fact; it depends on many things like concepts of “ownership” and on historical events. Reges has a debatable concept of “ownership”, but it is debatable. Balta is trying to claim that a (useless) expression of woke ideology is the same thing as “fact.” And why are such statements on syllabi in the first place? What do they have to do with computer science, or any academic discipline? UW says these statements are part of “a list of best practices for diversity.”

If UW can invite professors to put up ideological claims on their syllabi, and then dictate how those claims are to be made, then the school is on a slippery slope towards polluting the search for truth—and the process of teaching and learning—with politics and ideology.  You can imagine the kind of claims that universities could “invite” professors to put on their syllabi—so long as they accept the correct ideology. Here’s my suggestion, appearing on signs that appear in front of some American houses. All you have to do is replace “house” with “classroom”:

As for Reges, as of yesterday it appears his disciplinary committee is still being assembled. But in some ways he’s already been disciplined, which is why FIRE has filed a lawsuit.