Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Dershowitz and the heckler's veto 

I wrote someone today about the second coming of our campus' committee on academic freedom. He wondered if he should join, what it would be like, and particularly (I think) what's it like to be a right-libertarian on the committee. I told him that there are places where left and right will agree on academic freedom, if only the left would remember the roots of academic freedom in modern America coming from loyalty pledges.

We would do well to remember on the right as well. Alan Dershowitz defends the rights of the people who invited former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami to Harvard as an instance of academic freedom. But that freedom does not free one from criticism. And to do so means you've adopted one of two views on academic freedom:
Derek Bok, acting president of Harvard, is right when he says that ``a wide exchange of views" is essential to a university. But there are only two tenable positions a university may take in this regard: the first is that they have no substantive standards for who should be invited -- in other words any speaker who wishes to engage in ``a wide exchange of views," and who is invited by any student or faculty group, must be entitled to stand on the Harvard podium. Under this ``taxi cab" approach -- a cab driver must accept any rider who can pay the fare -- Duke and Kahane would have to be invited to speak if there were students or teachers who wanted to hear them, regardless of who might be offended. The second alternative is to have substantive standards -- such as academic achievement or political prominence -- that are applied rigorously and equally, without regard to whether the speaker is left or right, offensive to Jews or to Arabs, etc.
Most universities try to have it both ways -- to have standards that are malleable to the moment of crisis (defined usually as some group that claims group grievances claiming that bringing speaker X to campus aggrevates those grievances.) As Dershowitz points out, David Duke isn't invited to campus not because he has less to say than Khatami -- though it might be true -- but that he offends more people, and people who manage to hold power in Harvard.

This is the heckler's veto, something we've seen here at SCSU in the past. In another case, the university wisely chose to ignore the heckler's veto when it heckled a choice of homecoming queen, but again the defense was that they were breaking stereotypes, shaming the heckler. That seems to be the only thing that works here. So it might be at Harvard, Dershowitz says:
At the end of the day, Khatami will speak at Harvard, because Americans believe in and enjoy the sorts of academic liberties and openness to ideas that Khatami himself did so much to squash when he was in power. That's as it should be. I only hope that those in the Kennedy School who invited Khatami did so out of a genuine commitment to unqualified open dialogue, rather than the belief that offensiveness to some groups is more deserving of solicitude than is offensiveness to others, or worse yet, substantive agreement with some of Khatami's oppressive worldview.