In lecture, Columbia prof. discusses academic censorship

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Columbia Prof. Philip Hamburger discusses academic censorship yesterday. Buy this photo

Daily Staff Reporter
Published November 9, 2009

Columbia University Law School Prof. Philip Hamburger gave a lecture yesterday in which he asserted that the way academic studies are monitored at universities is detrimental to First Amendment rights.

Hamburger blamed institutional review boards — committees that protect research subjects in research and experiments — for limiting possibilities in academic research in his lecture “Galileo’s Ghost: 17th Century Censorship in 21st Century America.”

The lecture, which was given in Hutchins Hall, was the 19th annual installment of the University of Michigan Senate's Davis, Markert, Nickerson Lecture on Academic and Intellectual Freedom.

Provost Teresa Sullivan introduced Hamburger, noting the importance of the event.

“It’s a time set aside for thinking about academic and intellectual freedom, (which are) core values for our campus and our education,” she said.

Hamburger, who specializes in constitutional law and its history, based yesterday’s lecture on his extensive study of First Amendment rights and censorship.

Hamburger said there has been a dramatic shift toward censorship of scholarly work in the 21st century. He said while Americans think their freedoms of speech and press are protected by the First Amendment, this is not the case.

“But faculty and students, including faculty and students right here in Michigan, no longer have the ability to control this freedom because of the revival of the licensing of speech and the press,” Hamburger said.

Hamburger said the United States is moving toward drastic policies of press and speech censorship reminiscent of those held in the 17th century, during Galileo’s time. At that time, individuals were required to hold licenses to print and speak in a professional setting. For example Shakespeare’s actors needed licenses to perform.

“When you drive you need a license. Now imagine you need the same thing for speaking or publishing,” Hamburger said. “Imagine you needed permission from the government determining that you are sufficient and responsible to speak or publish.”

A main focus of Hamburger’s lecture was modern licensing of freedom of speech as well as universities’ use of institutional review boards.

He argued that these boards’ immense power over scholarly work and experimentation is not only unconstitutional on many levels and a “smorgasbord of First Amendment violations,” but is also greatly hindering the advancement of academic work and possibly even research breakthroughs.

“What we really need to consider is not the harming of subjects, but the harming of knowledge,” Hamburger said.

He said institutional review boards censor tens of thousands of research proposals each year, despite the possibility that “some of the research that gets abandoned, altered and forbidden could perhaps have saved lives.”

One of the few students in the crowd, LSA freshman Molly Lockwood, said she felt Hamburger brought up many interesting points that students should consider and be knowledgeable of when considering freedom of speech limitations.

“(Institutional review boards) and free speech are important because we are basically the future of America and we should know what’s going on and know what we’re being limited to in order to fix the limitations and stride forward,” she said.