The University of Michigan has an ignominious record when it comes to academic freedom.
Perhaps most notoriously, in 1988 the University instituted a sweeping speech code, which 15 months later was struck down in Federal district court as flatly unconstitutional since it prohibited unpopular speech.
Not long after the decision, however, the University Senate passed a resolution affirming the fundamental value of free inquiry, and established the Davis, Markert, Nickerson Lecture on Academic and Intellectual Freedom to promote such freedom. (The three names are those of professors who were suspended or fired in the 1950s during the red scare.) Was this a sign that the University had finally learned its lesson? It would appear not, for it invited none other than University Law Prof. Catherine A. MacKinnon to give this year’s lecture on Oct. 31. A worse choice could hardly have been made, for no professor at the University, and indeed probably in the entire state, has striven harder to suppress free speech and academic freedom.
MacKinnon is best known for her crusade against pornography, which she believes to be the root cause of women’s oppression. She and fellow radical feminist Andrea Dworkin co-authored anti-pornography ordinances that they attempted to put into law in major American cities, though they ultimately failed when the Supreme Court declared such ordinances unconstitutional.
MacKinnon had better luck in Canada, though. Persuaded by her arguments, the Canadian Supreme Court decided to ban sexually explicit material that degrade women, on the grounds that such material actually harms women. Civil libertarians point out the irony that the first time this new definition of obscenity was employed was when the Ontario government prosecuted a gay and lesbian bookstore.
Pornography is by no means the only thing MacKinnon wishes to censor, however. She not only supports campus speech codes but also calls for laws to make group defamation illegal, since she maintains that freedom of speech often conflicts with equality, the latter being a superior value. In her book “Only Words” she argues that speech rights are a zero-sum game: “The more the speech of the dominant is protected, the more dominant they become and the less the subordinated are heard from.”
On similar grounds she is quite forthright about her desire to censor teachers, including professors. She writes, “Suffice it to say that those who wish to keep materials that promote inequality from being imposed on students – such as academic books purporting to document women’s biological inferiority to men … or that reports of rape are routinely fabricated – especially without critical commentary, should not be legally precluded from trying …” In other words, if MacKinnon had her way, psychology professors could be forbidden from teaching that there are inherent cognitive differences between the sexes, and law professors who provocatively raise the issue of false claims of rape in class could be silenced.
But perhaps the most telling evidence for MacKinnon’s disdain for academic freedom comes from 1992, when she was involved with censoring an art exhibit at a conference held at Michigan’s Law School. Invited by the Michigan Journal of Gender & Law, which was holding a conference on prostitution, local artist (and outspoken opponent of MacKinnon) Carol Jacobsen installed a pro-prostitution video display that contained sexually explicit content. Acting on a complaint conveyed by MacKinnon, law students from the journal’s staff removed what they believed to be an offensive videotape – without contacting the artist first. Upon learning of the tampering, an angry Jacobsen told the students that if they wanted to censor any part of the exhibit, they would have to censor the whole thing. So they shut down the entire exhibit.
After suing the University, Jacobsen eventually reached a settlement in which she received $3,000 and had her exhibit reinstalled. Given the University’s history regarding free speech, it should come as no surprise that then Dean of the Law School Lee Bollinger – who is, of all things, a First Amendment scholar – denied that the students had violated Jacobsen’s legal rights. MacKinnon, who was a speaker at the conference and a guru to the students from the journal, denied having explicitly urged the students to censor the exhibit, although they did ask her for advice. Nonetheless, she told The New York Times that she fully supported the students’ decision. Thus, she is on the record as having supported the infringement of academic freedom at the very school at which she teaches.
Perhaps only George Orwell could do justice to the fact that the University’s main lecture in defense of academic freedom was given by the school’s greatest opponent to free speech – a lecture in which MacKinnon railed against the “overuse” of academic freedom, calling it “a sword (used) against students.” It’s as if Patrick Buchanan were a professor at Michigan and had been invited to give the University’s lecture on racial diversity.
In the end, whether it is McCarthyites or radical leftists who wish to abridge academic freedom in the name of national security or equality, respectively, one thing at Michigan hasn’t changed: The University contains enemies of one of its core values. But from its choice of this year’s lecturer on academic freedom, it is unclear whether it fully recognizes that threat.
Shubow is a Rackham student.