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Thursday, June 10, 2004

Columbia President Lee Bollinger / Assistant Professor Nicholas DeGenova

Columbia President Lee Bollinger / Assistant Professor Nicholas DeGenova

Hate Speech at Columbia is Academic


By U.S. Congressman J.D. Hayworth

Columbia University Assistant Professor of Anthropology Nicholas DeGenova does not like the U.S. military, to say the least.

He made that clear at a recent “teach-in” on Columbia’s campus when he told the anti-war gathering that he would like to see "a million Mogadishus," a chilling reference to the 1993 ambush in Somalia that killed 18 American servicemen (it also killed several hundred Somalis). "The only true heroes are those who find ways that help defeat the U.S. military,” spewed DeGenova. For good measure, he added that those Americans who call themselves "patriots" are nothing but white supremacists.

Unfortunately, DeGenova’s outrageous comments are nothing new for him. At an anti-Israel rally last April, DeGenova showed his hatred is not confined to America’s military when he let fly with this rhetorical bomb: "The heritage of the victims of the Holocaust belongs to the Palestinian people. The state of Israel has no claim to the heritage of the Holocaust.”

DeGenova’s comments are not only seditious, they are racist. They bring shame not only on him, but also on one of America’s great institutions of higher learning. As an assistant professor, DeGenova has not yet earned the promise of lifelong academic employment – i.e. tenure. So I circulated in Congress a letter to Columbia President Lee Bollinger urging him fire DeGenova forthwith; 103 of my colleagues signed on.

Sadly, the response to DeGenova’s comments was entirely predictable. While Bollinger mildly chided DeGenova, saying he was “shocked” by the comments (given DeGenova’s history, shocked is probably the last thing he should have been) and that “this one crosses the line,” he has stated he will not fire the nutty professor. Instead, he hides behind the highfalutin principle of “academic freedom” and the First Amendment, saying that, “Assistant Professor Nicholas DeGenova was speaking as an individual at a teach-in. He was exercising his right to free speech.”

Which begs the question: So what? As Fred Friendly, former President of CBS News who went on to teach journalism at Columbia University, said, “Just because you have the right to say something doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to say.”

The issue is not whether DeGenova has the right to make idiotic and hateful comments — he surely does — but whether he has the right to a job teaching at Columbia University after making such comments.

And if you think the exercise of our free speech right should always be consequence-free, talk to Senator Trent Lott and Rep. Jim Moran, both of whom had to give up leadership posts in Congress because of public outrage over indefensible utterances made under that same right.

Then there is Peter Arnett, who was fired by NBC for his treasonous interview on Iraqi TV (you could argue he was a twofer in that he was exercising his freedoms of speech and the press). And how about Terry Hughes, an R&B disc jockey at Eastern Michigan University's public radio station who was fired after giving on-air opinions in favor of war in Iraq and refusing to air National Public Radio news? In the real world, free speech carries with it real responsibilities… and real consequences.

As for academic freedom, Samuel Johnson said that, “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel;” but for scoundrels like DeGenova the last refuge is now academic freedom.

But if DeGenova’s comments are to be protected under that principle shouldn’t there be some academic aspect to what he said? I can’t find one. Maybe Bollinger can explain exactly what is “academic” about wanting to see a bunch of young Americans slaughtered in battle and equating the flag and overt acts of patriotism with white supremacy.

DeGenova was not discussing some new anthropological theory or defending the unconventional or controversial work of some other academic; it was hate speech, pure and simple. And I shudder to think that racist rants and willfully wishing the deaths of millions of our young men and women in uniform apparently have now become protected categories under our long-established tradition of academic freedom – at least at Columbia University.

In his last two statements on the issue, Bollinger cites a new justification for not taking action – “freedom of thought and expression.” But Bollinger wasn’t always an advocate for such freedoms. He was Dean of the Law School at Michigan University when it imposed its notorious speech code on students that was later found to be unconstitutional. Despite being an expert on the First Amendment, Bollinger did not use his lofty position to fight the code, choosing silent acquiescence instead. Apparently Bollinger believes freedom of expression applies only to professors, not students.

Bollinger’s final cop-out is that DeGenova’s comment weren’t made in a classroom, but at a teach-in, which is “not an authorized or officially sanctioned classroom experience.” But if DeGenova had called for, let’s say, a million Oklahoma Cities at a KKK rally, I’m sure my letter would not have been necessary, and rightly so.

One of the many ironies of this sorry episode is that the first time one of America’s greatest military leaders, Dwight Eisenhower, was addressed as president was when he was President of Columbia University in the late 1940s. And if there is a shred of decency left in the academy, Bollinger will act as Ike no doubt would have and fire DeGenova.

Despite the mounting pressure, Bollinger will no doubt continue to reject that recommendation because he doesn’t want Columbia to be seen as caving into outside pressure. However, I predict that when the time is right, Nicholas DeGenova will be quietly denied tenure. At that point, the academy will regain some of the legitimacy it has lost in this sorry episode.


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Congressman J.D. Hayworth has represented the 5th district of Arizona in the U.S. House of Representative since 1995.

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