As universities in the United States prepare to welcome new and returning students to campus, the fight for ownership of the curriculum and student body – ever-present in recent years – will certainly persist. Incidents over the past few years at Yale, Berkeley, Oberlin – among many others – have drawn battle lines between “free speech” advocates and “coddled” liberal university students, with the former alleging that the latter are attempting censorship, suppressing views that they do not agree with.
This debate has drawn intense scrutiny, as universities continue to wrestle with how to, on the one hand, ensure they are being equitable and supportive to all students while simultaneously providing the freedom to challenge long-held assumptions. However, the focus on “liberal, politically-correct (PC) culture” should not obscure another longer-standing form of censorship: attempts to track and influence professors.
Conservative censorship targeting ‘American values’
Classic notions of conservative censorship attempt to suppress so-called anti-American and unpatriotic teaching. Prompted by the communist revolution in Russia and the fear of its influence spreading in the US, censorship policies hit their peak during the war and the ‘Second Red Scare’. Notably, The Sedition Act of 1918 made it illegal to criticise the government or threaten the war effort. During wartime, freedom of the press and freedom of speech can constitutionally be suspended, as criticism of the US government is considered an act of disloyalty.
The use of patriotism as a justification for censorship continued throughout the first decade of the Cold War. Championed by Senator Joseph McCarthy, censorship, in the form of ‘McCarthyism‘, was once again promoted as an essential and patriotic tool to identify and punish treason. McCarthyism loosened the legal regulations on the evidence needed to accuse someone of treason. It led to attempts to censor professors, movie producers, authors, as well as regular people, motivated by the fear of a creeping communist agenda and an expanding ‘fifth column’ of communist sympathisers.
Following 11 September, 2001, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a conservative non-profit intended to foster academic freedom, published a list of over a hundred anti-American statements heard on campuses. Professors and academics were flagged for making un-patriotic comments, and were deemed as conspiring with the 9/11 terrorists, contributing to a weak America.
In November 2016, a website entitled Professor Watchlist emerged with the goal of publicly naming professors who had “advanced a radical agenda in lecture halls.” According to Charlie Kirk, the founder and director of Turning Point USA – the non-profit behind this website – it was time to expose professors who were out of line.
This is not the first website to name and shame professors. Conservative activist David Horowitz attempted to do the same with his Discover the Networks website. Both Discover the Networks and now Professor Watchlist question the credibility and patriotism of professors who they say espouse radically leftist principles. For example, it is not uncommon for professors to end up on the site as ISIS sympathisers for teaching courses on Islam or the Middle East.
Led by Horowitz, there was also an attempt to integrate the sentiments behind these websites into legislation. The 2004 Academic Bill of Rights proposal, which was considered by many state legislatures, intended to promote balance in teaching. The proposal contends that, to combat this leftward bias, the imbalance between liberal and conservative professors must be addressed. The exact mechanisms of this procedure are ambiguous, but the intent is clear: to control the appointment of professors.
Academic liberty on a knife edge
In 2006, Horowitz published a book entitled “The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America”, continuing to employ the language of patriotism and paint academics as treacherous, and therefore dangerous to national security. Attempts to legally codify this suppression have been made in the past: in 2005, a bill was introduced in Ohio that intended to prevent teachers from covering controversial subjects lacking “legitimate pedagogical purpose”. Again, how this bill would have been actionable is unclear.
Attempts to censor professors under the guise of patriotism are not new. In response to highly publicised liberal political-correctness events, compounded by increased fear mongering and a hardening partisan division, initiatives to censor professors gain traction. What is clear is that conservative groups have long been attempting to stifle debate and limit academic freedom, and it may not be too long before the current climate of news censorship breaches the realm of academia.