The Price of 'Free' Speech
by Robin Riley

Last October, Mark Rupert, Chair of Syracuse University's Political Science Department, was contacted by Marine Major Christian Devine of the Department of Defense's "Why We Serve Outreach Program." Major Devine was interested in having the Political Science Department host a visit from this program that offers the chance for "uniformed service members to speak about their individual experiences in the Long War" and gives "audiences around the country a personal view on military service," (www.whyweserve.mil). Further research on this program revealed that the purpose is to "win the war of narratives" about the war (Kirst, 11/29/07, blog.syracuse.com/kirst). Professor Rupert declined Major Devine's offer of propaganda advertised as apolitical, personal statements.

Professor Rupert's decision not to invite this group was countered by students in Professor Bill Coplin's HNR 260 "Improving Undergraduate Education" course offered through SU's Renee Crown Honors Program, claiming there is "left-wing bias in American universities" (Kirst, 11/29/07). A student in HNR 260 explained in SU's Daily Orange why the students invited the former military enlistees (all male) to present at several venues on campus: "We thought it would be a really good chance for students to get a different view on citizenship and a different perspective on the war in general" (Terruso, 11/30/07, Daily Orange).

"A different view on citizenship?" "A different perspective on the war in general?" What are students hearing about citizenship and the "war in general" that would require countering? The view promised by Major Devine, that of sacrifice, duty to family, nation, freedom, the "objective, non-politicized" (Terruso, 11/30/07) view of the individual soldier, is one that is historically established and freely disseminated in popular culture and university classrooms - supposed bastions of left-wing ideology.

Actual alternative presentations by what Major Devine calls "returned warriors" (Kirst, 11/29/07) might consist of something like: Why lack of freedom at home - read racism, poverty, recent immigrant status - led to military service in a war we neither support or understand; or, why we, US women soldiers, are not safe from sexual assault by our own male colleagues in the US or in Iraq or Afghanistan; or maybe, why we can't get adequate medical care when we return home from fighting in Iraq; or lastly, why, after being encouraged to torture Iraqi "detainees," we lower-level enlistees are the only ones who are punished.
How liberal is the SU campus? When Gold Star mother for peace Cindy Sheehan (above at a protest with North Country VFP member Paul Saint-Amand, far left) spoke at SU in Oct. 2006, a small group of protesters hung her in effigy. Photo: North Country Vets for Peace

Students truly seeking an alternative viewpoint might ask why Major Devine and the Bush administration call the "Global War on Terror" the "Long War." Is a program whose aim is public relations preparing college students, the presumed audience for this program, for a war without end? A program answering any of these above questions would quickly be seen by students and by the community as evidence of the leftward lean of colleges and universities rather than as an attempt to balance the prevalent view offered to students inside and outside of classrooms. The hue and cry would be enormous. When the SU Women's Studies Program sponsored a conference on the topic of feminism and war and invited Gold Star mother and antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan, along with many other speakers in the Fall of 2006, she was hanged in effigy outside Hendrick's Chapel.

Cindy Sheehan's presence on campus was seen as further evidence of the left-wing bias at SU. Her visit was not seen as occurring in context - that is, on the same campus that had been visited by Ann Coulter, John Bolton and John Ashcroft - or as part of the daily onslaught of government produced and endorsed propaganda that is presented as history, news or popular culture.

If students taking courses in the Honors Program at SU, arguably the best and the brightest, are not asking the right questions about propaganda, are satisfied with one-sided narratives as adequate information and are insulted by any questioning of what might constitute honest debate, where do we turn?

In the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the US and subsequent US bombings of Afghanistan, I organized some panels on campus to explore the relationship between gender and war. On the first panel Monisha Das Gupta, then a professor in the Sociology Department, described her dismay at how students were "depoliticized" in their bewilderment about why "they" hate "us." She exhorted all of us to examine our own pedagogical practice in order to insure that students would never feel so bewildered again. If we were doing the job that Professor Das Gupta had urged us to do, students would not be able, in 2007, to believe that they can listen to a panel of agents of the government who are speaking "objectively" and in a "depoliticized" fashion, or that they are learning what it means to be in war by listening to decontextualized personal narratives provided by one side.

But this is not about the failings of students. If students are not learning, we, faculty and administrators of universities, have to examine ourselves. Are we doing enough, recognizing the limitations of institutions, to facilitate student learning? While universities vow to protect radical professors and promote the free exchange of ideas, the gate-keeping of disciplines and systems of promotion work against these intentions. Teaching students about topics that are not easily understood or not supported in the popular imagination - that racism, sexism, and homophobia are flourishing inside the US, that the US is not actually in charge of the world and is not always just in the conduct of foreign policy, or that there are solutions to international problems that don't include dropping bombs or sending military troops - is challenging and risky.

And it takes courage. It takes courage to articulate unpopular views in the classroom, to include voices typically caricatured or excluded, to challenge something students have long believed. It takes courage to risk not being liked by students, to be poorly evaluated, or to psychologically survive a bad write-up on ratemyprofessors.com. It takes courage to do work not approved of by more senior members of the department or by your colleagues, to write articles that won't be published in the premier journals because of controversial content, or to risk the enmity of those who hold a differing political viewpoint as well as power over your career. But courage is what it will take to enact Professor Das Gupta's challenge and to prevent the uncountered voices of "depoliticized" soldiers who, according to the Daily Orange, had little difficulty finding venues outside the Political Science Department to speak. Perhaps SU is not such a bastion of leftist thinking after all. Courage is a commodity in short supply within institutions and those that have it must also have sufficient energy to fight the subsequent fall-out that occurs when courage is practiced. Just ask Mark Rupert.


Robin Riley is Assistant Professor in the Women's and Gender Studies Department at Syracuse University. She is co-editor of the forthcoming "Feminism and War," Zed Press, and co-editor of "Interrogating Imperialism: Conversations on Gender, Race & War," 2006, Palgrave MacMillan.