Colleges weigh freedoms vs. patriotism

A number of college professors and staff members were censored for comments they made regarding the Sept. 11 attacks that ranged from fervent displays of patriotism to profound questions about U.S. foreign policy.

Administrators handled the remarks in a variety of ways. Some rushed to criticize and then eventually acknowledged free-speech protections. Others failed to ever recognize the First Amendment rights of the faculty and staff members, and subsequently handed down punishments.

At the University of Missouri, Stacey Woelfel caused an uproar among state legislators when he asked his on-air talent to remove patriotic symbols from their clothing when reporting the news.

Woelfel is the news director of KOMU-TV as well as a journalism professor at the University of Missouri. KOMU is owned by the university, but is also the NBC affiliate for the area.

‘We are here to report the news, not to use ourselves to display our opinions,’ Woelfel said, explaining the reason for his decision.

The station does not receive any state funding. Legislators, however, threatened to cut the university’s budget if Woelfel continued to not allow the display of patriotic symbols. The legislators chose not to carry out their threats.

Other professors and staffers, who are not connected to campus media, were also caught in situations that compromised their First Amendment rights.

Close to the World Trade Center devastation, at the City University of New York, a teach-in was held in which faculty spoke to students about the attacks. Two professors, Walter Daum and Bill Crain, voiced opinions critical of U.S. policy in the aftermath of the destruction of the twin towers.

A university trustee drafted a resolution condemning Daum and Crain’s remarks; however, the final version did not mention the professors by name. Chancellor Matthew Goldstein condemned the comments, but noted the professors’ free-speech rights.

Three incidents in Florida led to the punishment of staff and faculty members for their actions following Sept. 11.

The University of Miami fired a medical technician for saying, ‘Some birthday gift from Osama bin Laden.’

Mohammad Rahat turned 22 on Sept. 11, and claims the remark was sarcastic. He has retained legal council and is protesting his termination.

At Florida Gulf Coast University, Library Services Director Kathy Hoeth was placed on administrative leave after she asked her staff to refrain from wearing patriotic buttons.

Hoeth later apologized, but the university deemed her actions serious enough to warrant an investigation.

University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian was placed on paid leave following his appearance on the Fox News show ‘The O’Reilly Factor.’

Al-Arian was a guest on the Sept. 26 show to discuss his expertise on the Middle East and his personal ties to suspected terrorists. In justifying the punishment, the administration said Al-Arian did not clearly distinguish his personal opinions from those of the university.

Another incident that drew the attention of state legislators involved Richard Berthold, a professor at the University of New Mexico. Berthold told a class of freshman students, ‘Anyone who can blow up the Pentagon has my vote.’

The remark angered legislators, causing some to call for his dismissal. The university issued Berthold a letter of reprimand and will not permit him to teach the freshman class in the near future.

Berthold accepted the punishment and apologized for the incident, but stood by his free-expression rights.