Letter to the Editor: It’s a question of wisdom, not censorship

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I am writing in response to Patrick Boice’s Oct. 24 letter, “Once Again The Chronicle is Hypocritical” and to communication department chairwoman Ann Darling’s comments in an Oct. 23 Chronicle article, “Academic Freedom Questioned at U.” Both Boice and Darling expressed support for professor Craig Wirth’s decision to invite a discredited National Enquirer journalist to speak to his class and suggested that criticizing Wirth raised the frightening possibility of “censorship.”

The question,rather, is whether Wirth’s decision was a wise one, and what sort of consequences he should bear as a result of it. Wirth’s “right” to invite the journalist to speak did not give him an obligation to exercise it nor did it convert him into a First Amendment martyr. Wirth should justify his decision on its own merits rather than hiding behind the founding fathers.

Boice and Darling could not seriously argue that Wirth has no responsibility to account for his professional decisions. Although administrators and senior faculty may not ban junior faculty from certain practices, they can and do pass judgment on the worth of them.

It is standard practice for faculty committees to examine associate and assistant professors’ research and teaching and decide whether they warrant promotion. Darling herself would hardly last long as a department chair if she did not make her faculty account for sloppy or careless work.

I, suspect, though, that Darling?s support for Wirth’s freedom to exercise judgment will also spill over into support for the substance of that judgment. Even to the brightest minds, the “censorship” boogeyman can shift the focus from the wisdom of particular decisions to vague concerns about the importance of free speech to democracy. Because the freedom to express unpopular ideas is almost universally recognized as an important element of our democracy, it is easy to perceive the unpopular ideas themselves as somehow having intrinsic worth.

But such is not always the case. And decisions like Wirth’s deserve far more careful and thoughtful consideration than the one word rallying cry of “censorship!” would give them.

John Morley

Economics and Political Science

Class of 2003