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February 10, 2020

Freedom of Speech on University Campuses vs. Academic Principles of Scholarship

Brilliantly, Anthony Kern (R), a member of the Arizona House of Representatives representing District 20 since January 5, 2015, has come up with the perfect solution on how to give everyone in the universe the same right to speak on any topic particularly in academic settings, scholarly or not. Indeed, we need to make sure that students hear all sides of an issue, and it does not matter whether a speaker is an authority or not. How about an astronomer versus an astrologer? Or, an oncologist versus a voodoo medicine man? Evolution theory vs. creative design? Let’s try to grasp how Kern conceptualizes that in the name of justice and fairness, making the university a level field for all opinions and ideas in conformity with the government.

Scholars and scientists have mastered their subject matter through many years of research and publishing, having been subject many times to the fire of peer reviews. But how much would their opinion really matter, if there are others out there on the street who hold different ideas and are vocal about that, hence ought to be invited to speak at the university deserving the same respect? Obviously, as Rep. Kern thinks, every position must be heard and respected, and the internet stands ready to be the enormous amplifier for anyone who believes to be the world expert irrespective of his/her education or training. Kern seems to believe that those guest speakers coming to the university, invited by their colleagues, are apparently entirely bent on manipulating the poor students’ minds and indoctrinating them to accept any wild religious or political idea, whereas private opinions should count as much as serious research. How does the University dare to abuse tax dollars and bring in experts without making them confront their uneducated detractors in public!?

For instance, I regularly lecture on the Holocaust and its memory today, having investigated this topic for many years personally and as a researcher both on-site and in archives. But why would my comments matter, if the University would then be forced to invite someone from the community who simply denies the Holocaust? Who cares about research in the first place, and why would it matter for students? How about climate change? Once a climatologist has presented his/her findings based on careful research and solid data, the university would be required to invite someone who has never been qualified as a climatologist and yet claims to know that there is no climate change, without offering any evidence to the contrary (who has paid that person to formulate such absurd ideas?). I guess the earth continues to be flat! I submit that scholarship and research should not be cheapened by giving equal rights to those who have no serious qualifications and abuse this democratic ideal of free speech for their political, religious agenda or capitalistic interests.

I am afraid that Rep. Kern has no clear idea of the nature of universities, research, and scholarship. Of course, if there is a public speaker who addresses moral, ethical, religious issues and wants to present his/her personal, subjective opinion, it certainly behooves us to consider also a contrastive view. But would we really want to legislate this, spending even more tax dollars on yet another bureaucratic layer? Those in charge of such an office would become de facto watchdogs and report to legislative leaders, just as in the good old days of the SS or the KGB.

But maybe Rep. Kern is right; these young students, eighteen years and older, are obviously so impressionable, so subject to ideological influence, unable to think on their own that they need to be helped by officers who control the political climate on campus and can guard them against the nefarious scholars and their evil secular research. However, not everything is equal, especially not in scholarship and sciences, so spare us from holy simplicity and political censorship.

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