Academic Freedom: The Grounds for Tolerating Abuses

In Ralph McInerny (ed.), Proceedings of the Wethersfield Institute Vol. 4 (Ignatius Press, 1992).

We are all familiar indeed, all too familiar with abuses of academic freedom. Consider, for example, the following two cases.

A controversy currently raging in this city of controversies concerns a City University of New York (CUNY) professor named Leonard Jeffries whose lectures frequently degenerate into racist and anti-Semitic diatribes. Professor Jeffries, who is black, asserts that whites are ice people who are prone to cruelty and violence, while blacks are sun people who are inclined to compassion and peace. He attributes the racial superiority of blacks to whites to the presence in black skin of the pigment melanin. Jeffries also claims that the slave trade was financed by Jews and alleges that a financial system of destruction of black people has been put into place as part of a conspiracy, planned and plotted and programmed out of Hollywood [by] people called Greenberg and Weisberg and Trigliani. The publication of these remarks has produced a chorus of demands that CUNY dismiss or at least discipline Jeffries. The professor and his supporters, however, maintain that he enjoys a moral and legal immunity from such actions as a matter of academic freedom.

In the early 1980s, a controversy erupted in Catholic circles when it was reported that George N. Gordon, the Chairman of the Communications Department at Fordham University, was contributing opinion pieces to an obscene (and viciously anti-Catholic) weekly called Screw magazine. (In those days, it was still unclear whether a member of the faculty could get away with this sort of thing at an ostensibly Catholic institution. The situation has since been clarified.) In any event, when Fordhams President was pressed to take action to combat the scandal of having a member of its faculty writing in Screw, he observed that Cordons writings could and would be defended as a right of academic freedom.

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