Attorney Floyd Abrams, known in part for representing New York Times reporter Judith Miller in his latest battle against First Amendment rights violations, spoke about free speech endangerment in universities at a lecture yesterday in Rackham.
“Whose Academic Freedom?” was the 15th installment of the annual Davis, Markert, Nickerson Lecture on Academic and Intellectual Freedom, named after three University professors targeted during the Joseph McCarthy era. All three pleaded the Fifth Amendment when questioned by the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee in 1954 and were subsequently suspended by the University.
Peggie Hollingsworth, president of the Academic Freedom Lecture Fund, considers the annual lecture “an act of reconciliation” on the University’s behalf. Abrams’s speech continued the tradition of the lecture series by contesting the latest restrictions on academic freedom.
“It is very important for universities to ensure students access to a wide range of views,” Abrams said. He cited multiple racially charged disputes between students and professors.
He stressed the danger in the federal government’s arbitration of such grievances, concluding, “The university itself may be at risk if government comes down too hard in telling it how to teach and what to teach.”
Abrams also addressed the controversial International Education Advisory Board, a proposed federal oversight committee introduced in an amendment to the Higher Education Act and designed to report to Congress on federally funded international studies programs “with respect to homeland security.”
Abrams’s comment reflected the concerns of many organizations, including the Association of American Colleges and Universities and the American Council on Education (The University of Michigan is a member of each,) which have sent letters to Congress in opposition to the proposed board.
“Any legislation,” Abrams said, “that involves imposition of federally mandated boards to determine academic issues threatens the very notion of academic freedom.”
The bill calling for the advisory board was passed in the U.S. House of Representatives, and has been assigned to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.
Responding to the lecture, LSA junior Caitlin Townsend said, “It raises the question of how we, as a country, should support racial, cultural, and religious tolerance while preserving the right to teach material that may harm.”