Carlos Rojas in The Naked Gaze:
In an Op-ed column in this past Sunday’s NY Times, Stanley Fish discussed the case of Kevin Barrett, the University of Wisconsin Ph.D. and coordinator for the “Muslim-Jewish-Christian Alliance for 9/11 Truth,” who is scheduled to teach a course on “Islam: Religion and Culture” this fall, but who has argued that the US government was directly responsible for the 9/11 attacks. After he discussed these views on a conservative talk show, State Representative Stephen Nass (R) lead calls for Barrett’s dismissal from the university.
In his editorial, Fish argues that much of the ensuing controversy over whether or not Barrett’s political opinions should be protected misses the point of what “academic freedom” does and does not cover. The point of academic freedom, Fish argues, “has nothing to do with content,” but rather “is the freedom of academics to study anything they like; the freedom, that is, to subject any body of material, however unpromising it might seem, to academic interrogation and analysis.” Therefore, he concludes,
Any idea can be brought into the classroom if the point is to inquire into its structure, history, influence and so forth. But no idea belongs in the classroom if the point of introducing it is to recruit your students for the political agenda it may be thought to imply.
Ironically, Fish’s essay advocating a clear distinction between advocacy and analysis has been roundly criticized for its implicit ideological agenda (for some of these discussions, see Long Sunday and Sherman Don).
I, too, will consider Fish’s editorial and the issues it raises, but will approach them somewhat indirectly, by turning first to two other recent incidents which underscore the power of speech and its implicit limits. On July 9th, Zinedine Zidane’s headbutt of Marco Materazzi was in response to verbal taunting. Although FIFA states that both parties denied that the taunting was racist in nature, they nevertheless gave Materazzi a surprisingly harsh two-game suspension. More recently, on July 28 Mel Gibson was pulled over for drunken driving, and proceeded to launch into a profanity laced, anti-Semitic tirade, saying among other things, “F—— Jews… The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world.”