Free Speech / Academic Freedom
Amsterdam, 2016 (M. Rodriguez)
Exactly one week after the commencement of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, on March 26, 2003, at an anti-war teach-in at Columbia University, in spite of the vulnerabilities that attended his status as an untenured Assistant Professor, Nicholas De Genova celebrated the defeat of the U.S. military in Vietnam as a victory for the cause of human self-determination and openly called for the material and practical defeat of the U.S. military occupation of Iraq. His speech was instantly catapulted into a media feeding frenzy as a few particularly forthright phrases from his remarks were construed to be inflammatory, and became national (and international) news.
Commenting from afar, the President of Columbia University, Lee Bollinger, who was traveling and had no specific knowledge of what Professor De Genova had in fact said, apart from what had been reported in the mass media, declared to the press that he was “shocked” and that “this one crosses the line.” In a subsequent iteration, Bollinger declared that he was “appalled” and summarily denounced Professor De Genova’s comments as “outrageous.” Significantly, Bollinger added, “Our faculty and students, regardless of their position on the war, have not been silent in their denunciation of [De Genova’s] remarks.” Thus, regardless of their positions on the war, faculty and students alike were not-so-subtly instructed by the highest administrative official of the university that the substance and form of Professor De Genova’s speech required vociferous condemnation and were effectively impermissible – they “crossed the line.”
In this climate of intimidation, even ostensibly “anti-war” faculty at Columbia scrambled to distance themselves from Professor De Genova and repudiate what he had said, in a desperate effort to recuperate their own credibility and legitimacy. Indeed, within the academic milieu, the political imperative for an aggressively de-politicizing rhetorical “civility” and cautious circumspection manifested a pernicious social and political pressure, exerted from all sides. This pressure was intended to utterly suppress (or at least significantly curtail) any expression of audacious and fearless protest or dissent. Simultaneously, a campaign by wealthy and influential donors as well as more than 100 members of the U.S. Congress and numerous other public officials demanded that Professor De Genova’s employment be terminated.
In addition, De Genova was subjected to numerous aggravated and repeated death threats and underwent major disruptions in his ordinary personal and professional life as a result of security considerations. In this context of intense adversity, the untenured professor granted an interview to the Chronicle of Higher Education, whose editors, without revealing to him their intentions, then ran the piece under the sensationalist headline nominating him “The Most Hated Professor in America.”
Thus, if faculty at Columbia had not been adequately forewarned by the university president’s insinuation that De Genova was culpable of an unpardonable kind of extremism and had committed some sort of rhetorical treason, here were multiple forceful verifications that his career and his life itself would be imperiled for daring to follow out the logical implications of his opposition to the invasion – that one must actually endorse the defeat of the aggressor, the United States.
A few years later, after the scandal had long subsided, Columbia University quietly denied Professor De Genova promotion and preempted the possibility of his being considered for subsequent tenure review.
Professor De Genova is currently completing a book, Crossing the Line: A Memoir of Free Speech during Wartime, which reflects upon this experience and addresses these timely and politically urgent concerns for a broad public readership.
De Genova's first extended commentary on this experience to appear in print has been published as a book chapter:
Wednesday, March 26, 2003. Exactly one week after the commencement of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. At an antiwar teach-in at Columbia University, where I was employed as an untenured assistant professor of anthropology, I celebrated the defeat of the U.S. military in Vietnam as a victory for the cause of human self-determination and unequivocally called for the material and practical defeat of the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Like dozens of other faculty members that night, I had spoken for only about ten minutes. Ten minutes: few words in the great scheme of things—but words well chosen. What I said changed the course of my life and career. In this chapter, for the first time in print, and after more than ten years, I examine my experience of “crossing the line”—transgressing the ordinarily unspoken and unwritten limits, however unstable, of permissible speech—and reflect upon the larger significance of this episode of the suppression of dissent among academic intellectuals within—and against—the imperial university.
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edited by Piya Chatterjee and Sunaina Maira (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014).