At FIRE's 10th-Anniversary Bash, Nat Hentoff Touches Off a Blaze


Nat Hentoff, the longtime civil-liberties advocate, said that he had not intended to attack the ACLU "in terms of their daily work."
October 23, 2009

"Ah, the beauty and the perils of free speech!" As he took the podium last night at the 10th-anniversary dinner for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, the organization's president, Greg Lukianoff, adopted a tone more rueful than celebratory.

Nadine Strossen, the former longtime president of the American Civil Liberties Union, had just shocked the black-tie gathering by, after a series of increasingly vocal protestations, walking out of the gala at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel here during a speech by the event's honorary dinner chairman, Nat Hentoff, the veteran civil-liberties advocate, music critic, and onetime columnist for The Village Voice.

Mr. Hentoff had taken the occasion to cite as an example of the suppression of free speech the ACLU's handling last year of the criticism by two former board members—Wendy Kaminer and Michael Meyers, who were both also in the audience—of the group's reported use of data-mining practices to gather information about its members and donors.

"This was not meant to be an attack, by any means, on the ACLU in terms of their daily work," Mr. Hentoff said in a telephone interview today, but was intended as a rebuke for how the organization's leadership had imposed what Mr. Hentoff said amounted to a gag order on its members.

Ms. Strossen explained in an e-mail exchange this morning with those who had been seated at her table that she had felt blindsided by Mr. Hentoff's remarks, especially since he had signed a letter citing her "efforts on behalf of liberty" in inviting her to serve as an honorary vice chair of the event. That is "why I chose to exercise my free-speech right not to listen to Nat exercise his free-speech right to defame the ACLU," wrote Ms. Strossen, who is now a professor at New York Law School.

Perhaps it was inevitable that an event celebrating an organization dedicated to free speech, whose members and supporters represent all points on the political spectrum, would hit a few rhetorical minefields. "If you have a wedding, you're always worried that the different families won't get along," Mr. Lukianoff said.

'Plague of Campus Prosecutions'

As attendees at last night's dinner learned from speeches by Mr. Lukianoff and others, and in a brief film outlining FIRE's work over the past decade, the organization has handled more than 3,000 cases involving the civil liberties of students and professors as well as cases of academic freedom, most of which never become public. The group claims direct responsibility for changing 79 unconstitutional and repressive policies at institutions that represent 1.5 million students but, as one of FIRE's founders, Harvey A. Silverglate, noted in his remarks, the demand for the organization's work remains far too broad.

"It is essential to beat back the plague of campus prosecutions for speech, especially under vague and formless definitions that make students vulnerable for saying something that an administrator deems offensive," warned Mr. Silverglate, a lawyer in Cambridge, Mass., who started FIRE in 1999 with Alan Charles Kors, a historian at the University of Pennsylvania.

In his keynote address, Eugene Volokh, a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles's law school and author of a widely read blog, the Volokh Conspiracy, struck a more optimistic note. Describing himself as a conservative, he said that the "very broad, almost unparalleled protection for free speech on university campuses" that currently prevails is due in large part to liberal activism.

But Mr. Volokh also pointed out that "free-speech protections are taken less seriously by many university officials than they should be." Among the challenges universities and academics face, he said, is the growing tendency of many students to arrive on campuses "expecting that they have a right not to be offended."

Those singled out last night for recognition included two education professors who were cited for "uncovering and challenging the repressive residential-life program at the University of Delaware." The professors, Jan H. Blits and Linda S. Gottfredson, were honored for exposing what Mr. Lukianoff called "simply the largest-scale invasion of basic constitutional rights we have ever seen on a public campus." He was referring to the University of Delaware's decision in 2007 to start "a mandatory program for 7,000 students who lived in the dorms that amounted to a pseudo-psychological inquisition into students' speech, behavior, and even political beliefs." Within days, the university abandoned the effort.

Three student members of FIRE's Campus Freedom Network who were in the audience were also honored. They included Braum Katz, a senior at the College of William and Mary, who was cited for his work in helping to transform his institution from one of the 77 percent of public colleges with what FIRE deems "red-light" or unconstitutional speech codes. Earlier this month, FIRE designated William and Mary one of just 11 "green-light" institutions, for having no policies that restrict the free-speech rights of its students.