The terrorist assault against the United States three weeks ago altered, perhaps irrevocably, the shape of public discourse across the nation. Jokes once offered off the cuff are now being reconsidered in the face of changing sensibilities. Bill Mahr, host of ABC's "Politically Incorrect," has been heavily criticized for rebuking American military policy and describing the terrorist actions as "not cowardly." Film studios have delayed movie premieres months due to concerns about plot lines revolving around bombs on airplanes and the destruction of cityscapes. Sony Pictures pulled a "Spider-Man" trailer from theaters because it prominently featured the now-destroyed World Trade Center Towers.
This is part of the cost in doing business in the public sphere and dependence on the fading tastes of the marketplace. Expression and opinion are dependent on the willingness of the financial supporters - commercial sponsors, television audiences - to tolerate their content and continue to provide the subsidy that gives birth to the media.
Such free-market censorship, however, is not welcome or wanted in other areas - like university classrooms. Students at Minnesota's Saint Olaf College complained to the dean about professors criticizing President Bush's policies. A professor at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington is under investigation for allegedly confronting a student after blaming American policies for the attack. Lehigh University asked a group of students not to display an American flag because of Arab students' complaints.
Some confrontations have gone beyond disconcerting words. Instructor Ken Hearlson at Orange Coast College in California was put on paid leave after a heated class discussion. Muslim students allege he called them "Nazis," "murderers" and "terrorists," a charge he denies. A philosophy professor at Henry Ford Community College in Michigan physically ejected a student from class during an argument about religion.
Free and open debate within the classroom serves as both a means and an end. Debate allows participants to consider opposing points of view, reconcile their own beliefs and synthesize a new opinion. This is the means to an end. Debate unfettered from fear of hostile actions and official sanctions is a manifestation of the primary reason for the existence of universities. This is an end itself.
Classrooms across the United States, from elementary schools to universities, are classrooms of ideas. When the free flow of ideas is restricted or choked off, students' abilities to learn are endangered. Those responsible for Sept. 11 wanted to cripple the United States in every sense of the word. Universities who restrict the flow of ideas for fear of being insensitive cripple their institutions as much as any bomb could.
It's wholly understandable that emotions are running so high about such a terrible act and many are looking to assign blame and take action against the guilty. Students, professors and administrators should take care to distinguish between offensive ideas and offensive behaviors. Criticizing American foreign policy or Muslim extremists at a time like this is potentially offensive to many people. Burning an American flag is offensive behavior. The distinction is fine one, but necessary to maintain an open dialogue of issues which is key to a university's existence.