Two big stories in the news today are about academics: Ward Churchill, a professor being fired from the University of Colorado for what he said about the 9/11 bombings, and Norman Finkelstein, a professor at DePaul being denied tenure for what he has written about Israel. Both universities say they are firing these guys for other reasons, but those reasons simply don’t hold up, and it’s clear that the firings are essentially political. (Further information and discussion of both cases can be found here.)
I am a great believer in academic freedom. It is essential that academics be allowed to say the most controversial things without fear of being fired. But I am also a great fan of intellectual responsibility, to the point where I think in some cases it would be right to fire someone (or even imprison them?) for atrocious instances of intellectual irresponsibility.
Now the Churchill and Finkelstein cases seem to me to be importantly different. I think it is widely agreed that Finkelstein’s work is intellectually responsible. Many people find his conclusions unacceptible, and charge that he slants information the wrong way, but my sense is that even his opponents (apart from Alan Dershowitz) would say he has a position worth considering and wrestling with. (Or?) But it seems equally clear that Churchill is irresponsible in his silly ravings. His thoughts can be easily set aside without impairing fruitful intellectual discourse. So, in short, Finkelstein seems to be the sort of academic for whom academic freedom is designed, and Churchill seems to be a free rider, one of the problems you’ll get by stretching the protective cover too broadly.
Is there a way to offer the protection of academic freedom to all and only those who are intellectually responsible? My guess is no. It would be nice if academic administration could be trusted to sort out who’s being intellectually responsible and who’s not, but they have a lot going on. They need to secure money from legislatures and donors, they need to recruit students, and they need a trouble-free career history if they hope to advance to better jobs. So, I guess we are left with the need to vigorously defend academic freedom, even if it ends up encouraging and defending the intellectually irresponsible!