Academia and Paranoia Politics

The January 28th Issue of The Nation, a Left-wing political rag, is set to contain a story entitled Repress U. The article is about how Universities, once well known for being bastions of free-speech radicalism and fresh ideas are slowly giving into the culture of paranoia.

I believe that the article is tainted by strong bias against the war in Iraq and the current presidency. I feel that the bias present in the article tends to take a many things out of context, and over exaggerates other threats. Still, if one digs past the bias, there are several strong examples of the dangers of the Paranoia State in which we live.

All over the country police forces are operating at a higher level of tension than they did before 2001. College campus police forces are no exception. The article makes a large issue of police forces buying guns, though I’ve never known an officer who didn’t have access to a semi-automatic handgun at least. And the AR-15s? My understanding is that municipal police have had those in their arsenals for years. Should Campus police be armed differently? I don’t think so. College campuses are pretty much small cities, with the same potential for real problems. And these are real police officers. Like any officers though, they should use their weapons carefully.

Which is probably why tasers have become as common as they are among today’s police forces. As a less-lethal means of subduing a target they are nearly impossible to compete with the weapon. Have people died from being tased? Sure. But when you look at the number of people who have been subdued with tasers versus the numbers who have died, the number is inconsequential. And how many more of those people would have died or been seriously injured if tasers weren’t available? Even if the UN considers them a form of torture now, until something better can be proposed, I say we ignore the UN.

The problem isn’t Tasers. The problem is that tasers are occasionally misused. The [Iranian-American student who failed to immediately supply ID when requested[(http://abcnews.go.com/US/story?id=2662158&page=1) (a common rule at Universities), probably could have been dealt with without being tased. The student was in violation of university policy, but I’ve never seen or heard any evidence suggesting that he was enough of a threat to justify the use of such force. The same for the Florida student who was tased for asking a question of John Kerry (though honestly, the Florida situation was far more obscene).

Unfortunately, poor use of force isn’t the only scourge upon freedom within Academia. The idea of watching the students and faculty is becoming more and more common. Card access is becoming the norm for building access at campuses nationwide, providing convenient records of entry into buildings. More disturbing, are stories of camera-based monitoring. A University of Reno-Nevada professor was secretly being recorded by the University Police, probably at least partially because his name happened to be “Hussein.” At my alma-mater the Director of Residence Life authorized the placement of camera’s on a residence hall floor without telling anyone, not even the hall’s director. In that case, the camera was placed only to try to detect an arsonist that had been active for months, but I was never comfortable with the secret placement of those cameras within a student living environment.

I was most disturbed, however, by the creation on some campuses of “Free-Speech Zones”, illegal as that very idea may be. Free Speech is not something that should ever be delegated to specific areas. Either we have the right to speak our minds or we don’t. Thankfully our Nation’s Constitution guarantees that right, and it can not be revoked so easily. I have never attended an Activist campus. The demonstrations that occurred at Montana State were small in nature, even though the folks who attended held strong convictions. Still, their right and ability to demonstrate was always respected by the administration, even when their message was not likely to be popular with the majority of the student body.

The rest of the article, I’m less inclined to give much credence to. The government deporting illegal foreign nationals is never a bad thing, in my opinion. I think immigration is a great thing. I’m the distant child of immigrants on both sides of my family. I actually have my mother’s father’s father’s immigration record to prove it. However, I do think it’s important to know who is entering the country, and having some means of identifying them. That was part of the reason the government began requiring Social Security Numbers for all citizens when I was young, and I believe it’s reasonable that non-citizens should face more barriers than citizens.

And the claims that Homeland Security is trying to take over the research and teaching at Universities is humorous to say the least. The military and the government has always been the primary funder of research in this country. The military and the government has always worked hard to recruit out of the universities. These practices are nothing new, and the claim that they contribute significantly to the oppression of academia is laughable. The research that Homeland Security is working on today stands to introduce real security in the future, as we begin to make decisions based on real data and not just knee-jerk reactions to largely imagined threats. We should be encouraging more government spending into academia, not less.

I’m disturbed purely because, at many campuses nationwide, freedom is being assaulted. I don’t believe that academia can exist under such an attack. Science requires open communication, free flow of ideas. By beginning to censor communication, we are likely to greatly harm scientific advancement in this country, which could stand to further damage our nations success as a research powerhouse. Security is important, certainly, but we can be secure and free at the same time. I don’t think that Universities are in any more danger than the rest of our society from losing our freedom.