August 05, 2006

"CONTROL YOUR INTEREST IN PUBLICITY FOR YOUR IDEAS," UW-Madison Provost Patrick Farrell told Kevin Barrett, the part-time instructor who believes the U.S. government is behind the 9/11 attacks. Barrett is planning to teach students about the factual truth of this theory in a course called "Islam: Religion and Culture." Citing our university's tradition of academic freedom, Farrell rejected demands that Barrett be fired. But the political uproar has continued, and Barrett -- unsurprisingly -- has gotten numerous invitations to appear in the media. And now, we see that 10 days after Farrell made his decision to retain Barrett, he warned him about all that media activity:

"[I]f you continue to identify yourself with UW-Madison in your personal political messages or illustrate an inability to control your interest in publicity for your ideas, I would lose confidence ... ,"...

Announcing his decision on July 10, Farrell declared, "We cannot allow political pressure from critics of unpopular ideas to inhibit the free exchange of ideas."

Farrell said he wanted Barrett to know that he could reconsider his decision if he did not meet expectations. He said Barrett has "modestly made some efforts" to cut down on publicity.

"I was trying to be fairly careful to not inhibit his privilege of speaking freely," he said. "My point was that he should be aware as he exercises those rights there may be a time when I have to rethink the assurances he has given me about his ability to separate his opinions from what happens in the classroom."...

Farrell scolded Barrett for identifying himself as a UW-Madison instructor in e-mails in which he challenged others to debate his theories. The provost said the challenges suggest "that you speak for the university -- precisely what I told you was inappropriate in that context."

Barrett, for his part, says that he isn't seeking this publicity. It's seeking him. And what, exactly, is wrong with his speaking publicly? His reprehensible conspiracy theory is fine to inflict on students, but please stop showing your face to the general public because it's making trouble for the university? That Barrett is teaching at the university is -- unlike his crazy theory -- a plain fact. It's an embarrassing fact, and we can easily understand Farrell's interest in suppressing it. But the public is entitled to know this fact and to react to it. This too is part of free speech. Why are we so keen on airing all sorts of ideas within the university but averse to letting the general public have access to those facts?

When I go on radio or TV, I am introduced as a professor at the University of Wisconsin, whether I'm talking about law or politics or culture or some other topic I presume to blab about. It's never even occurred to me that stating this true fact -- where I work -- means that I "speak for the university" or that listeners might be confused into thinking that I do. You'd have to think ordinary people are idiots to believe that they think Kevin Barrett is speaking for the university when he spews his offensive theory. The problem is not confusion about whom he speaks for, but the embarrassment to the university that he thinks what he thinks and he teaches here. How can you justify suppressing this factual information of great public interest?

And why should Barrett have to refrain from publicizing his ideas in order to keep his job? It's acceptable for him to teach here, but please, be very quiet about it? And this is held out as an attempt "to be fairly careful to not inhibit his privilege of speaking freely"? The letter makes a connection between speaking out publicly and being able to "separate his opinions from what happens in the classroom." But what is that connection? And would we use that reasoning on other teachers? Promoting a strong political position in the public arena raises a suspicion that you can't fairly present material in the classroom anymore? All politically active academics would feel threatened if we thought the university would apply that reasoning across the board. And if Farrell is not going to apply that reasoning across the board, why is he inflicting it on Barrett?