Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Colleges, Free Thought and Blogging

Jay Mathews tells a fascinating story about the dangers of blogging about your collegiate experience.

I have never shied away from having my name on this blog and I never will. Similarly, I have never allowed other individuals to write material for this blog, although I have routinely been approached to do so. What you see on this blog are my thoughts and my ideas.

I have never been denied a job because of this blog, but by the same token, I have never had a prospective employer ask me if I had a blog. I take care to avoid profane language, mostly, and generally do well to cite sources and provide links to every quote I post here.

But here is the thing, part of my job is to present ideas, make arguments and espouse a point of view--sometimes a point of view I don't necessarily agree with. That is the nature of being a lawyer. But dissenting views are part and parcel of what lawyers are about. The profession expects indeed, litigation is premised on the notion of disseting views and alternative theories.

But, by the same token, I don't expect that colleges are as prudent about censoring their students when it comes dissenting views. I know we should be surprised, but this bit from Mathews piece hit me hard:
Although there are generally at least two sides to every story, we cannot comment on the particulars of this case because the confidentiality of a student’s record is involved. Nevertheless, on two matters of academic principle we can be clear. First, the Stanford School of Education has never attempted to dismiss or discipline a student, either for having a blog or for espousing any particular set of beliefs. We stand firmly in support of intellectual freedom and the right of all students to express their views.

“Second, teachers, including student teachers at STEP, have ethical and legal obligations (e.g., under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) to maintain the privacy interests of the students who have been entrusted to their care.”

How did these otherwise sensible and well-regarded academic professionals twist themselves into such an untenable knot?
Colleges, and in particular colleges of education, tend to the liberal side, a fact that is fairly well known. If you are aware of the bias and can live with it, then so be it, but you shouldn't be surprised. The policy of non-disclosure of student records is proper--they are not for public consumption. But when the school or college has the practially unfettered right to deny a credential on an amorphous, ever shifting standard, then they can and will use policies like these to deny that credential--which is exactly what was threatened. So Mathews question of how these policies got used in the case at Stanford should not be a surprise. I think what happened was that this particuarly student and blogger didn't tuck her tail between her legs and meekly accept the threat and Stanford caved.

Standing up is really the only way to prevent this, but the risks are huge. If you have invested in your education to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars, and you blog about your experiences, when this kind of threat comes up, the easiest step is to quit blogging rather than asserting your rights to free speech and academic freedom. Colleges count on that and they expect that most students will quit. But if more people are like the student Mathews profiles, then the censorship and suppression of speech rights will end.

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