Does Academic Freedom Protect Holocaust Deniers?

Two views on the question

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle
November 14, 2010

Response by Cary Nelson

Response by Naomi Schaefer Riley

Cary Nelson Replies

Naomi Schaefer Riley Replies

It Depends on the Context

By Cary Nelson

Imagine the following classroom conversations:

Student in a world-literature class: "I'd like to write my final paper on Holocaust poetry. I'm trying to decide whether Yevgeny Yevtushenko's 'Babi Yar,' Paul Celan's 'Todesfuge,' or Jorie Graham's 'Annunciation With a Bullet in It' is the best poem."

Faculty member's answer: "You cannot take up that question unless you recognize that the poems are all flawed fantasies. None are based on fact. The Holocaust never happened."

Student in a political-science or philosophy class: "Which man-made disaster is worse: Bhopal or the Holocaust?"

Faculty member's answer: "There's no excuse for Bhopal. It didn't have to happen. But the Holocaust didn't actually happen at all. Give me a better comparison."

I could generate numerous similar scenarios. A student in a medieval-history course, for example, might contrast a natural catastrophe, the Black Death, with the Holocaust. A student in an art-history class might write about Holocaust painting or sculpture; a student in a music-history course study the role of music in the concentration camps; a student in an ethics class consider the burden the Holocaust has placed on future generations. Nothing in those syllabi might suggest beforehand that the Holocaust will arise, but it can—and does.

In some fields, the shadow of the Holocaust looms large, Modern European history being the most obvious. Basic knowledge about the Holocaust is a reasonable expectation for a 20th-century historian or literary critic. A faculty member who is a Holocaust denier might face a competence hearing before his or her peers—under certain circumstances. But one needs to know what he or she said, and in what context. The details matter.

Whether a faculty member recognizes that the Holocaust looms large in a field like postwar American or European literature depends in part on whether he or she is inclined to look. But academic freedom certainly means that a person can teach courses in those areas without ever mentioning the subject. It also means that faculty members teaching in those fields should not be required to be knowledgeable about Holocaust literature. Although it is part of the critical field of reference for contemporary literary history, so, too, are many other subjects, which individual scholars may never master.

Certain subjects, like the Arab-Israeli conflict, are likely to provoke discussion of the Holocaust whether or not a faculty member plans for it. And any course covering genocide—whether it be the near-extermination of American Indians, the Armenian genocide in World War I, or the mass murders in Rwanda in 1994—is almost certain to evoke Holocaust comparisons. The probability of the Holocaust's arising in class discussion is impossible to calculate for many disciplines, but it is certainly possible throughout the arts and humanities. Holocaust denial can be pedagogically disabling.

That takes us to Kaukab Siddique, who teaches literature and mass communications at Lincoln University, in Pennsylvania. He has used public forums outside the classroom to declare the Holocaust a "hoax." He cites writers like David Irving and the white supremacist Mark Weber. Siddique maintains that, in promoting Holocaust denial, he is simply speaking for the "other side" of the issue. But there is no credible "other side." No respectable historian advocates Holocaust denial.

To be sure, in some disciplines—engineering, veterinary medicine, accounting, chemistry, home economics—the Holocaust is largely irrelevant. If a student brought up the subject in those classes, the instructor could well declare it outside the boundaries of the course and move on to other matters. And professors can say what they want about the Holocaust in public settings. Writers on academic freedom like to cite the example of Northwestern University's notorious Holocaust-denying engineer Arthur R. Butz, who keeps his views out of the classroom.

But Siddique is walking a finer line. He is broaching Holocaust denial off campus, while teaching in a discipline in which the Holocaust has definite relevance. His university has appropriately said he cannot be fired simply for his extramural statements. He could even repeat those statements in a public forum on campus and be protected. It is less clear, however, that he could declare the Holocaust a fiction in class. A key question is whether, in a field like Siddique's, Holocaust denial merits a hearing before a committee of his peers. Is his professional fitness at issue?

Of course, we need to protect a very wide range of extramural freedom of expression. Unqualified efforts to suppress even so loathsome an endeavor as Holocaust denial carry their own dangers. The most obvious corrective on campus to Siddique's extramural Holocaust disinformation is other people's demonstrating that he is a deluded ideologue. Still, his extramural speech may at least merit a university warning that he has put himself at risk. If a version of one of the hypothetical conversations I offered at the outset were to take place between him and a student, a hearing and penalties might result. Even then, a faculty member's entire record as a teacher and scholar should be considered before the ultimate penalty of dismissal could be applied. I have no evidence that Siddique has tried to impose his views in class, but the controversy over his extracurricular remarks reminds us there is a bright line that must not be crossed.

We must also recognize that some efforts to establish that line are not compatible with academic freedom. It would be a violation for colleges to enforce the "Working Definition of Antisemitism," issued by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights. While the text provides good suggestions for evaluating potentially anti-Semitic statements on campus, imposing sanctions on those who violate any of its protocols would trespass on academic freedom. Students have advocated enforcing it, but that would be a misuse of the document. It was never intended to police campus speech.

The definition includes drawing "comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis"—though that is essentially what the sociologist William I. Robinson, of the University of California at Santa Barbara, did in a 2009 e-mail to students that compared Israel's Gaza incursion to the Holocaust. I defended his right to do so, and the university cleared him after an unnecessary and potentially chilling investigation. People are free to criticize Robinson, but the university had no cause to consider penalizing him. I also maintained that the arguments of Neve Gordon, a faculty member at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, in favor of an escalating boycott of his own country were protected by academic freedom. On the other hand, both the American Association of University Professors and I have consistently opposed boycotts of Israeli faculty members and universities by other countries.

Faculty members could also take issue with the term "Holocaust" itself, preferring another designation. Or they might analyze the ideological deployment of the Holocaust and offer a critique of the cultural and political privilege it is granted, or ask why some forms of historical denial make news and others (like denial of the Armenian massacre) often do not. But faculty members cannot stand before a class and announce that the Nazis did not kill six million Jews, along with numerous homosexuals, Gypsies, disabled citizens, and political opponents. I would not knowingly hire a Holocaust denier or grant one tenure in a discipline to which the Holocaust is relevant. A college does not benefit from institutionalizing ignorance and hatred.

Siddique's public comments have increased the likelihood that his students will ask him about the Holocaust in class. If he refuses to discuss his views, he may lose his students' respect, although that price is one he is apparently willing to pay by making his comments in the first place. Student reaction is not the university's immediate concern, despite the impact it might have on student evaluations. But if he argues for his views in class, he could face a hearing. Determining whether his ability to function as a faculty member has been fatally undermined may await further events. I have seen no evidence that Siddique should be fired, but academic freedom does not protect all of the actions that can flow from Holocaust denial.

Since historical accuracy is the determining issue, Holocaust denial is not inherently an example of speech that is politically controversial, although it certainly has been deployed for political purposes. Academe has no business enforcing conformity to political or religious beliefs or to matters about which there is substantive academic debate. But to describe Holocaust denial as fundamentally, rather than strategically, political is to fall short of the intellectual courage and professional responsibility necessary to describe it accurately. Holocaust denial is speech promoting falsity as truth. Unlike myriad lesser errors that academics might make, errors for which their competence should not be reviewed, Holocaust denial counters fundamental and well-established knowledge. It is also effectively hate speech, whatever the intent of the speaker. It denies people their history and obliterates the fate of their relatives on the basis of their religion and ethnicity.

The larger problem for faculty members who engage in Holocaust denial lies elsewhere. It is grounded in the question of disciplinary competence, but it also exceeds that question. Holocaust denial calls into serious question a faculty member's overall professional competence—the capacity to weigh evidence, to undertake rational analysis, to perform academic responsibilities reliably. I do not pretend that either this or the other questions I have raised are subject to easy answers. Nor do I pretend that my answers are definitive. But there is reason to discuss them.

Cary Nelson is a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and president of the American Association of University Professors. His most recent book is No University Is an Island: Saving Academic Freedom (New York University Press, 2010).

Apparently, if You’re in the Right Discipline

By Naomi Schaefer Riley

It isn't easy being Cary Nelson. The president of the American Association of University Professors sometimes has to decide which Holocaust deniers in the academy he will defend and which ones he will not. Nelson recently said there were grounds to question the competency of Kaukab Siddique, associate professor of English and journalism at Lincoln University, in Pennsylvania, who has been publicly declaiming against the legitimacy of the state of Israel and suggesting that the Holocaust was a "hoax." On other occasions, though, the AAUP has rushed to the defense of professors who don't believe six million Jews were murdered by the Nazis. The AAUP's reasoning in those cases requires the kind of intellectual backflipping that no amateur should attempt. And those gymnastics reveal just how bizarre our understanding of academic freedom has become.

Let's start with Siddique. In a pro-Palestinian rally in Washington in September, he proclaimed: "I say to the Muslims, 'Dear brothers and sisters, unite and rise up against this Hydra-headed monster which calls itself Zionism. ... Each one of us is their target, and we must stand united to defeat, to destroy, to dismantle Israel—if possible, by peaceful means." (But if not, well ... he'll leave that to your imagination.) In an online newsletter called New Trend Magazine, he has called the Holocaust a "myth" and a "story."

Nelson says that criticizing the legitimacy of the state of Israel is well within the bounds of academic discourse. No surprise there, as anyone who has followed the trends of Middle East studies can tell you. But Nelson also says that a faculty member's criticism of Israel could cross the line into anti-Semitism, depending on what was said and in what context. According to Nelson, what academic freedom does not cover, on or off campus, are statements that call into question the ability of a scholar to teach his or her discipline.

As for Siddique, apparently Nelson thinks it is a problem for any humanities faculty member to engage in Holocaust denial, and that's why he believes Lincoln University would have grounds at least to investigate Siddique's professional competence. Really? It matters only if your Holocaust denier is teaching literature, say, or history? This is a distinction that will leave a lot of nonacademics scratching their heads.

But that's the distinction that has allowed Arthur Butz, a professor of electrical engineering at Northwestern University, to remain in his position for more than three decades, despite his own public record of Holocaust denial. In 1976, Butz's book The Hoax of the Twentieth Century: The Case Against the Presumed Extermination of European Jewry was published in the United States. He doesn't seem to have rethought his position much since then. Several years ago, in an interview with the Iranian press, Butz was asked about Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's views on the Holocaust. His reply: "I congratulate him on becoming the first head of state to speak out clearly on these issues and regret only that it was not a Western head of state."

So how does Arthur Butz get a free pass while Kaukab Siddique could merit a competency hearing in accord with the AAUP's position? Nelson has said that, for Butz, the issue is irrelevant because the Holocaust has nothing to do with his teaching or research. In fact, Butz's presence at Northwestern is a constant reminder not—as its mission statement suggests—that the university is committed to the "personal and intellectual growth of its students in a diverse academic community," but rather that Northwestern is reaffirming its commitment to not running afoul of the ivory-tower authorities.

What would be funny about all this—if Holocaust denial were a laughing matter—is that Siddique himself has clearly figured out how to game the system. He told Inside Higher Ed recently that he is entitled to the protections of academic freedom precisely because this isn't his area of study. "I'm not an expert on the Holocaust," he said. "If I deny or support it, it doesn't mean anything."

You see, Siddique seems to be claiming, he's just like Arthur Butz. As long he doesn't engage in the study of the Holocaust in his job, his speech falls under the protections of academic freedom. Indeed, Siddique is a man who has the American academy completely figured out. "We can't just sit back in judgment and say those guys were bad and we were the good guys," he said. "I always try to look at both sides. ... That's part of being a professor." And if that language of moral equivalency weren't enough to ingratiate himself with his fellow academics, he also expressed concern about the interference of nonacademics into the affairs of universities. (Numerous politicians and pundits have called for an investigation into his activities.)

Even if they may have landed on opposite sides of the AAUP's academic-freedom line, what Siddique and Butz do have in common is that they are both tenured, which means it would be almost impossible to get rid of either one, should either of their institutions attempt it. Earlier this month, Lincoln University announced that it "cannot take action at this time" regarding Siddique's statements. But just think about the possible scenario if Lincoln decides in the future to take action because, as the AAUP would have it, the Holocaust falls within Siddique's academic purview. Imagine the scene in which Kaukab Siddique testifies that he can't be punished because he is not an expert on whether the Holocaust occurred and Cary Nelson claims that, yes, in fact, he is.

It's enough to make you wonder if maybe we need to rethink what we mean by academic freedom.

Naomi Schaefer Riley is author of God on the Quad: How Religious Colleges and the Missionary Generation Are Changing America (St. Martin's Press, 2005). Her book on tenure will be published by Rowman & Littlefield in the spring.

Cary Nelson Replies

It is not actually tenure that may shield Kaukab Siddique from sanctions for his public statements about the Holocaust; it is academic freedom, a value that survives only if it protects remarks we despise as well as those we endorse. If Siddique were to be punished, he would no doubt immediately claim that his academic freedom had been violated. That would trigger due process and a hearing before a committee of his peers, whether he was a tenured faculty member, a first-yearassistant professor, or an adjunct faculty member teaching a single course.

Siddique is certainly trying to "game the system," but his fanaticism may nonetheless lead him where he should not go. The issue in a hearing would be professional fitness, which is a matter to be determined by a faculty review or hearing committee. That involves academic judgments about professional competence and professional boundaries. The American Association of University Professors distinguishes between speech that can be held to standards of professional competence and speech that has no bearing on professional competence. A biologist who asserts that the theory of evolution is a hoax would be in danger of demonstrating himself or herself unfit. Holocaust denial may have comparable status for someone teaching world literature.

Disagreeing about the meaning of the Holocaust is entirely permissible and, indeed, inevitable. The meaning of a historical event is always open to debate. It cannot be permanently settled. Nor can one assume one has all the facts now. New documents may be discovered indefinitely. But the fundamental truth that the Nazis successfully carried out an organized, even industrialized, program that killed millions of Jews is not in dispute.

Some have claimed further that comparing Israel to Nazi Germany is a factual error comparable to Holocaust denial, but I cannot agree. Comparing Israel to Nazi Germany is a hyperbolic political analogy, an interpretation one may support or dispute, but it does not rise to the level of Holocaust denial. My reactions to Siddique's remarks are a mix of anger and sadness. He has absurdly asserted that there is "not one" document proving the Holocaust occurred. He has looked into the hollow gaze of concentration-camp victims and declared they were starving only because Allied bombing disrupted German food distribution. That suggests Siddique's humanity is distorted and degraded, but it is only his professional fitness that is at issue in reviewing his academic status.

Naomi Schaefer Riley Replies

Lincoln University claims to be the oldest historically black college in the country. Its graduates include Langston Hughes and Thurgood Marshall. Today Lincoln is employing a professor who has called the Holocaust a myth. Kaukab Siddique's "humanity is distorted and degraded," in the words of Cary Nelson. And yet, unless Siddique is teaching something directly related to the Holocaust, Nelson believes he has a legitimate claim to keeping his position. The school's most prominent graduates and its namesake are probably rolling over in their graves, but in the name of academic freedom, Siddique must stay.

In the process of standing up for the "remarks we despise as well as those we endorse," Nelson has lost sight of the noble principles that undergird this country and its educational institutions. Defending hateful statements is not the only good here. Professors should be not only passers-on of information; they should be models of intellectual and moral integrity. The idea that we should overlook Siddique's "distorted and degraded humanity" and consider only his "professional fitness" is plainly offensive.

I would add that Cary Nelson's attempt to divorce tenure from academic freedom is nothing short of baffling. For decades we have heard that tenure is vital to protecting academic freedom, but now it turns out that the AAUP thinks professors without tenure would be protected just the same. In fact, the way tenure has evolved, it is virtually impossible to get rid of faculty members who have it, even if they are, amazingly, Holocaust deniers.

It is hard to imagine that Lincoln would keep on Siddique or that Northwestern would have continued to put up with Arthur Butz were it not for their tenured status. Maybe there are adjunct or assistant professors with similarly offensive views out there, but I haven't heard about them. Some may think that's a sign that universities are failing to defend remarks they despise, but I think a university free of Holocaust deniers is something to be proud of. Which goes to show how low we have set the bar.

[Editor's Note: This article was updated with new replies from Cary Nelson and Naomi Schaefer Riley on November 14, 2010.]