Every once in a while, something happens in my hometown of Madison, WI that goes national. Sometimes, it's something that could happen anywhere - Audrey Seiler's kidnapping hoax comes to mind. Seiler was going to be the next missing pretty white girl in the 24 hour news cycle and, when she showed up alive, people who probably should've been relieved were angry that they'd had to come to cold Wisconsin when they could've been covering the real thing in Aruba.
At other times, things happen that could only happen here - or someplace extremely similar. That's the case with Kevin Barrett. From the LA Times:
After Kevin Barrett started talking about a class he planned to teach this fall on Islam, the little-known lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found himself in the middle of a fierce political battle between the school and state politicians.
Barrett told a Milwaukee talk show host in June that he believed that the U.S. government used "controlled demolitions with explosives" on Sept. 11 to bring down the World Trade Center buildings and later said that the idea of a hijacked plane hitting the Pentagon was "preposterous." He plans to discuss these beliefs over one week of the 15-week course for undergraduate students.
Wisconsin lawmakers, however, are trying to stop him.
In a letter delivered Monday to university administrators and Wisconsin Gov. James Doyle, state lawmakers demanded that school officials fire Barrett before the fall semester begins. Sixty-one of the legislature's 133 members — now on summer recess — signed the letter.
And if the school allows Barrett to teach "these lies," some of the legislators who signed the letter are threatening to cut the university system's public funding when the next state budget is reviewed next year, said Republican Rep. Stephen L. Nass.
At this point, let me get myself on the record as saying that Steve Nass is a moron and an empty suit. This is what he does. It wouldn't surprise me any if Nass staffers scanned Wisconsin newspapers looking for things to be 'outraged' about. As far as I know, he's never introduced legislation that addressed anything that was actually a problem - he's all about headlines. It's depressing that people in his district are happy with someone who's really nothing more than a haircut.
"The rest of the world believes that the towers were brought down by terrorist actions. Taxpayers are spending $1 billion a year on the University of Wisconsin, and my office is being flooded with calls and e-mails by people who are furious that their dollars are going to be spent teaching such falsehoods," Nass said. "If the university doesn't do something to stop this, then lawmakers will step in and try to deal with it."
Of that $1 billion, Barrett will get about eight and a half grand. What a tremendous and pressing problem. "We cannot allow political pressure from critics of unpopular ideas to inhibit the free exchange of ideas," Patrick Farrell, the school's provost, is quoted as saying by the Times, "The university is one of the chief financial engines of this state. It's short-sighted to handicap that engine just because legislators are annoyed with the views of one of our employees."
Nass tried to pass legislation to block Barrett, but couldn't get enough cosponsors to get it to the floor. Now, he's going around with a letter that really won't do anything but help Nass save face.
In the end, Nass will accomplish nothing. Good for us. The Capital Times editorial board sums things up nicely.
Referencing the UW's historic commitment to free and adventurous inquiry, which is stated on the most famous plaque on the campus, Farrell concluded by saying, "Instead of restricting politically unpopular speech, we will take our cue from the bronze plaque in front of Bascom Hall that calls for the 'continual and fearless sifting and winnowing' of ideas."
In the history of the UW, the Kevin Barrett controversy will rank as just one of many fights over academic freedom. It will not be the most dramatic or the most consequential. But the UW's legacy is only as strong as the willingness of campus leaders to boldly reaffirm the school's commitment to the "sifting and winnowing" of ideas whenever it is challenged.
That plaque reads:
WHATEVER MAY BE THE LIMITATIONS WHICH TRAMMEL INQUIRY ELSEWHERE, WE BELIEVE THAT THE GREAT STATE UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN SHOULD EVER ENCOURAGE THAT CONTINUAL AND FEARLESS SIFTING AND WINNOWING BY WHICH ALONE THE TRUTH CAN BE FOUND.
One lesson the UW should not teach is that there are exceptions to freedom of speech.