Professors, Too, Have A First Amendment Right To Embarrass Themselves in Public · 31 August 2006

By Sara Dogan--SAF--08/31/06

In a case bearing many similarities to that of University of Wisconsin-Madison Instructor Kevin Barrett, who was widely criticized for his view that Dick Cheney blew up the World Trade Center, tenured University of New Hampshire professor William Woodward has come under fire for the holding same bizarre views.

Woodward, a psychology professor and member of Scholars for 9/11 truth, believes that the United States government is lying about 9/11 and either perpetrated the attacks or allowed them to go forward in order to justify war with Iraq. Like Barrett, Woodward has publicly stated that he makes students aware of his views on 9/11 in his psychology courses, although unlike Barrett he asserts that he only mentions them once or twice a semester, whereas Barrett plans to devote a section of his course on Islam: Religion and Culture to teaching his conspiracy theories alongside the "official" story of 9/11.

Woodward's public statements on 9/11 have provoked outrage among New Hampshire politicians, several of whom have called for his termination. The University has risen to his defense, asserting that it would be inappropriate and a violation of academic freedom to take any action against Woodward.

While it is understandable that local legislators are upset by Woodward's political views, and incensed that he would teach them in class, the principle of academic freedom clearly dictates that he should not be fired for his publicly expressed beliefs. As extreme and absurd as his political views may be, he has every right as a citizen to hold them.

With regard to his conduct in the classroom, however, the principles of academic freedom set limits to what is permissible. The 1940 "Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure" of the American Association of University Professors asserts that "Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject."

The statement also reminds faculty that their unique position "imposes special obligations" and "they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances" and therefore "should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution."

In a recent piece for the New York Times, Professor Stanley Fish clarified these points noting: "All you have to do is remember that academic freedom is just that: the freedom to do an academic job without external interference. It is not the freedom to do other jobs, jobs you are neither trained for nor paid to perform. While there should be no restrictions on what can be taught - no list of interdicted ideas or topics - there should be an absolute restriction on appropriating the scene of teaching for partisan political ideals. Teachers who use the classroom to indoctrinate make the enterprise of higher education vulnerable to its critics and shortchange students in the guise of showing them the true way."

As the 1940 AAUP statement asserts, a professor's academic freedom is premised on his or her expertise within a given scholarly field. Woodward's training is in psychology, not in aerospace engineering, metallurgy, or the many other subjects relevant to the collapse of the twin towers on 9/11. Therefore, while academic freedom dictates that Woodward cannot be fired for his personal view that 9/11 was caused by a government conspiracy, it also holds that he should not bring his personal political views into a class where they are irrelevant to the subject at hand.

In a comment to InsiderHigherEd.com, AAUP General Secretary Roger Bowen emphasized these same points in defending Woodward, noting: "So long as the faculty member teaches within his or her discipline and is careful to teach the truth as set by the highest standards of scholarship within their discipline, they and their universities should not be subjected to political intrusions." The question is how in the world can Roger Bowen regard a psychology professor's crackpot theories of 9/11 as reflecting "the truth as set by the highest standards of scholarship within [his] discipline."