Ed Driscoll

Outrageous Credulity, On-Campus Edition

Ann Althouse has some thoughts on Kevin Barrett, the 9/11 conspiracy theorist who is a part-time instructor at the University of Wisconsin’s Madison campus. Patrick Farrell, the campus provost, won’t fire Barrett, but he doesn’t want him to take advantage of the enormous PR platform his incendiary views are creating. She quotes this excerpt from the Chicago Tribune:

“[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.”

Ann replies:

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?

I don’t think it’s that unreasonable for the public to presume that Barrett is speaking on behalf of the university, in the sense that his statements imply that they’re within the accepted bounds of discourse allowed by the university. As Roger Kimball of The New Criterion wrote last year:

Academic life, like the rest of social life, unfolds within a frame of rules and permissions. At one end, there are things that one must (or must not) do; at the other end, there is rule of whim. The middle range, in which behavior is neither explicitly governed by rules but is not entirely free, is that realm governed by what the British jurist John Fletcher Moulton, writing in the early 1920s, called