ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

The Limits of Academic Freedom

April 25, 2005 by ACTA

The winter provided ample fare for followers of campus scandals centered on speech. There were Ward Churchill and his "little Eichmanns," Lawrence Summers and his politically incorrect speculations about sexual difference, the David Project and Columbia University's investigation into its Middle East studies department. Spring promises to be just as provocative. Presently, the person whose beliefs are attracting attention is a political science professor at North Carolina Wesleyan College named Jane Christensen. Christensen harbors some extreme beliefs about 9/11, beliefs that make Ward Churchill's vitriolic comments sound positively tame. She maintains a website outlining those beliefs and featuring a photo of herself decked out like a terrorist. She also teaches a course centered on her theories about 9/11 entitled, "9-11; The Road to Tyranny." According to a news article about the course, it "teaches that the official story about Sept. 11 is the result of 'government involvement in the coverup.''"

Christensen is absolutely convinced that her course reveals the one right way to understand the attacks: "I teach the truth about 9/11 in all of my courses," she has told the press. She has also said that criticism of courses such as hers amounts to "a war by the extreme right wing motivated by the Zionists to quash academic freedom on campus," adding that students will "never find anything that resembles the truth about 9/11 or the war in Iraq from the mainstream media."

NC Wesleyan president Ian Newbould is defending Christensen's academic freedom. "We don't tell professors what to think," he says. "We don't tell professors what to teach. ... What makes America great is we don't do that. I've often used a quotation that they say comes from Voltaire, `I may disagree with what you say but I'll fight to your death your right to say it.'" Tom Betts, who chairs the college's Board of Trustees, has similar things to say: "I find what's on her Web site to be distasteful and despicable, and I disagree with everything on it. In the most polite of terms, it is disgraceful. ... However, this is America ,and academic freedom and free speech is what sets us apart from the rest of the world. And I believe and hope most people will see this Web site for what it is: the opinions of a very, very far left person. And any sensible person would see this as a joke–a very bad joke."

Christensen's critics maintain that this is not an issue of academic freedom, but of blatant fraud. Academic gadfly and UNC-Wilmington professor Mike Adams, for example, has devoted a column to Christensen, arguing that her work is filled with "slander and anti-Semitism" and that she is "a bigot posing as a scholar." The Pope Center's Jon Sanders calls Christensen's course "crackpot," and an editorial in the Rocky Mountain Telegram argues that defenses of academic freedom–as important as they are–ought not to be used to mask the fact that Christensen's course is founded on questionably sourced, biased material. A companion article in the Telegram broaches the idea that Christensen is not using her 9/11 course to educate, but is instead using it to indoctrinate.

What Christensen posts on her web site is one thing; what she does in her courses is another. In her course, Christensen is openly uninterested in presenting a balanced look at the debates surrounding 9/11; she is freely expounding a conspiracy theory as the truth. In its deliberate one-sidedness, hers is not a course that encourages students to become as knowledgeable as they can about an issue, and then to make up their own minds about it. Easy invocations of academic freedom sidestep the important problem of how Christensen is using–or abusing–hers; indeed, they work counterproductively, to cover up that problem and even to define it away.


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