Censorship By Other Means

The Witch-Hunting of a Professor

by Gilles d'Aymery

December 2, 2002


"I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."
("Je ne suis pas d'accord avec ce que vous dites, mais je me battrai jusqu'au bout pour que vous puissiez le dire.")
--Attributed to Voltaire (1694-1778)

Why does the episode surrounding Professor Peter N. Kirstein of Saint Xavier University (SXU), Chicago, Illinois, smack me as a flagrant example of censorship -- not actual censorship in the traditional sense but censorship nonetheless? (1)

Let's summarize the facts. Late October, a U.S. Air Force Academy (USAFA) student, Cadet Robert Kurpiel, sent an e-mail to Prof. Kirstein, inquiring about ways to advertise an annual political forum, an Academy Assembly organized by the USAFA, in SXU publications. Prof. Kirstein answered with -- one could say shot back -- a very strongly worded e-mail of his own. That e-mail found its way to the Internet where it was widely circulated. Once what was essentially a personal and private correspondence became public the genie could not find its way back into the proverbial bottle, where it should have stayed in the first place. SXU got flooded with e-mails and letters, for the most part highly disapproving of the form and substance of the professor's message and asking for the professor to be summarily fired from his position. The professor apologized to the Cadet for his lack of sensitivity as well as to the Director of the USAFA Academy Assembly, Captain Jim Borders; the Cadet apologized for the dissemination of the professor's e-mail and Captain Borders subsequently issued a gracious and civil message. Meantime, the pressure on SXU did not abate and on November 15, its president, Richard A. Yanikoski, issued a statement indicating that Prof. Kirstein had been suspended for the current semester; an administrative reprimand would be issued and placed in his personnel file; Prof. Kirstein would be submitted to peer review at an earlier date than previously scheduled; and, in any future contract with the university, he would have to sign a binding addendum requiring him to adhere to some arcane policies (for the non-academic crowd) related to academic freedom and extramural activities. (2)

That many people would find Prof. Kirstein's initial response deeply offensive, insensitive and provocative -- known as a "flame" in Cyberspace, an act of writing before thinking in which many of us have presumably been caught a few times -- should not surprise anyone. We live in a country where over one third of the population is either directly or indirectly related to the military, where any dissenting voices and opposition to the policies and actions of the U.S. government are deemed unpatriotic, subjected to harassment, castigation, potential incarceration and even deportation; and we live in a country that has increasingly become a place where one cannot express strong emotions, even intemperate, or considered excessive words, without fearing for one's loss of job or liberty -- and sadly enough this is equally true in many other parts of the world. Each case, taken into the vacuum of the news cycles, can be easily dismissed as yet another Cassandra's dire prediction and taken as a rather benign incident in an ocean of liberties; but when similar cases are put together an unmistakable trend toward conformism and authoritarianism emerges.

Take Bill Maher, the former host of the ABC late-night show, Politically Incorrect, who saw the show cancelled after uttering the opinion in the wake of 9/11 that "we have been the cowards lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That's cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it's not cowardly." This comment, it should be recalled, elicited Ari Fleischer, the White House press secretary, to issue the warning that "Americans...need to watch what they say, watch what they do." (3)

Take Dan Guthrie, a former columnist for the Daily Courier, in Grants Pass, who got fired by its publisher for having written about President Bush that he was "hiding in a Nebraska hole" following the terrorist attacks. (4)

Take, Tom Gutting, a former columnist for the Texas City Sun, near Galveston, Texas, who got fired for a column titled, "Bush has failed to lead US." (5)

Take Tim McCarthy, the editor of The Courier, in Littleton, New Hampshire, who wanted to include a cartoon by Mike Marland, depicting two towers, labeled, "Social" and "Security" and a small plane piloted by Bush, labeled "Bush Budget." The cartoonist had to apologize. McCarthy lost his job. (6)

Take Ann Coulter the only "conservative" columnist to-date to be sacked. The National Review dropped her for having written demeaning words about Muslims; and Peter Werbe, the "liberal" talking-head, saw his show whacked off the air in New Mexico because he was criticizing Bush. (7)

Take former German Justice Minister Herta Daeubler who was forced to resign last September for having been overheard to say that "Bush wants to distract attention from his domestic problems. This is a popular method. Hitler also used it." (8)

Take Françoise Ducros, the communications director of Jean Chrétien, the Canadian prime Minister. Ducros had to resign from her post last week. The reason? She called Bush a "moron." (There are reports of White House staff calling the Canadian Prime Minister "dino" -- for dinosaur. However, no resignation has been announced.) (9)

Take the British Advertising watchdog, the Broadcast Advertising Clearance Center, which banned a commercial depicting a Bush parody in which Bush takes a videotape, opens it, sticks it into a toaster and burns it, saying, "My favorite -- just pop it in the video player." (10)

A fastidious list possibly -- though far from complete (11) -- but one can legitimately ask where will this lead us? Are we slowly, imperceptibly and blindly marching on a slippery road toward more stringent punishments?

In Iran, an intellectual, Hashem Aghajari, has been sentenced to death for having criticized the country's religious leaders. In the Netherlands, Ayaan Hirshi Ali, a Dutch Muslim Woman, having dared say that Muslim men oppressed Muslim women, had to flee the country after receiving a series of death threats. In Nigeria, Muslim leaders call for a journalist, Isioma Daniel, to be beheaded. Her crime? In the midst of the violent controversy that surrounded the Miss World Contest (and prompted the organizers to move the show to England) Ms. Daniel suggested that had the prophet Muhammad been around he would quite possibly have wanted to marry one of the contestants. (12)

Fear for one's job, fear for one's liberty, fear for one's life... Is this the direction in which we are heading?

The punishment business

What is this about? After all, once the e-mail to the Cadet propagated on the Internet like a wild fire, Professor Kirstein was amply embarrassed, shamed, ridiculed, attacked, demeaned, in the press and countless Internet outlets. His inconsiderate blurting caused much egg to land on his face. What's more humiliating for an academe than being so publicly exposed, scolded and castigated for a dumb and insensitive move (scholars are not immune from foolishness and they are as prone to error as anyone else)? Was this not punishment enough? He promptly apologized; the Cadet and his superior accepted his apologies. It could have stopped there; yet SXU president chose to pursue the matter further. Why?

Writer and researcher David Peterson who lives in Chicago nearby SXU presented an interesting counterfactual scenario in an e-mailed letter to President Yanikoski. (13) Posits Peterson: "In reply to a similarly polite and respectful request for assistance in organizing an upcoming symposium from a member of the American Nazi Party [ANP] or the Ku Klux Klan [KKK], Prof. Kirstein addresses exactly the same reply to either of them that he did to Cadet Kurpiel on Oct. 31 (mutatis mutandis, of course) -- and, in the exact same samizdat-like manner of widespread Internet circulation that the professor's message to Cadet Kurpiel received, your University finds itself bombarded with messages from ANP or KKK sympathizers demanding the immediate punishment or dismissal of the professor." Peterson acknowledges that this scenario cannot be tested against reality but he adds, "my honest hunch is that [in this case], your University would NOT have adopted anything remotely close in severity to the four sanctions that it in fact has adopted in the case of the Kirsten affair."

Peterson's scenario and hunch are right on mark. Chances are that the episode would not have made the news, not even been a blip on the radar screen. Actually, the story could have been scripted quite differently and read as follows:

"A Refreshing Example of American Maturity in Our Confused Times -- A fourth-class cadet at the USAFA was subjected to an e-mail verbal attack by a history professor at SXU. Upon being flustered by the uncivil tone and aggressive content of the e-mail (which found its way to the Internet and was widely circulated, creating a general uproar), the cadet was summoned to his superior's office where he was told, 'buckle up, young man. If you can't take this kind of shibboleth, of sloganeering flame, no matter how offensive it may be, how will you react in battle when real enemies are trying to kill you? Remember, your job as a soldier is to defend the freedoms of our country which include the freedom of expression, especially that which is the most abhorrent to our own senses. Any question? No, Sir! Then please send an apology for having disseminated his e-mail on the Internet and behave yourself. Oh, here is a short quote by Spinoza for you to ponder. (14) That will be all, Cadet. Yes, Sir. Thank you, Sir.' Subsequently, the professor apologized to the cadet for the unwarranted and offensive tone of his message. It was further agreed with the approval of SXU's president and the commanding officer of the USAFA that both men would meet at a symposium organized by the Academy Assembly where they will have the opportunity to share their opposite views." End of story; case closed.

Maturity did not prevail and the episode did not involve the KKK or the ANP, but the U.S. Military. Professor Kirstein was punished not for the form of his message (15) but for its content -- its substance -- which is deeply antimilitaristic and reflects the views and convictions of a small but significant segment of the public. Kirstein's punishment, a potential career-ending stroke, is above all a message to the public that dissent will not be tolerated. It may not be an act of censorship within the construct of the 1st Amendment but it is a flagrant act of intimidation, of censorship by other means. Whether one is a journalist, a commentator, a cartoonist, a satirist, a politician, or a tenured professor, Ari Fleischer's warning, "Americans...need to watch what they say, watch what they do," is increasingly carrying the day. Whatever the pressures to which President Yanikoski must have been subjugated, possibly placing him between a rock and a hard place, his decisions are as deplorable as they are a disgrace to academia and a discredit to intellectual integrity. Sadly enough, this episode does not bode well for the future of our cherished freedom of speech.

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References and Notes

1.  In the interest of full disclosure: I sent the following e-mail to Prof. Kirstein on November 15, 2002:
"I've just read the statement made by the president of SXU and I am dismayed, utterly dismayed. This is a blatant act of censorship, a direct attack against freedom of speech and liberty of expression.

It is also a sad and dire instance of the current climate in the United States where dissent is shut down and civil liberties curtailed at an increasing pace."  (back)

2.  Prof. Kirstein's e-mail is reproduced below. For the general correspondence among the actors and a sample of comments, please visit the History News Network. Also, a good source of information on this issue is the John K. Wilson's Web site, collegefreedom.org. There can be found a list of many articles covering the controversy as well as other web sites that have addressed the issue.

SXU President Yanikoski's statement can be read at http://www.sxu.edu/news/kirstein_statement.htm

Prof. Kirstein's e-mail:
From: Peter Kirstein
Sent: Thursday, October 31, 2002 1:46 PM
To: Kurpiel Robert C4C CS26

Subject: Re: Academy Assembly

You are a disgrace to this country and I am furious you would even think I would support you and your aggressive baby killing tactics of collateral damage. Help you recruit. Who, top guns to reign death and destruction upon nonwhite peoples throughout the world? Are you serious sir? Resign your commission and serve your country with honour.

No war, no air force cowards who bomb countries with AAA, without possibility of retaliation. You are worse than the snipers. You are imperialists who are turning the whole damn world against us. September 11 can be blamed in part for what you and your cohorts have done to Palestinians, the VC, the Serbs, a retreating army at Basra.

You are unworthy of my support.
Unquote  (back)

3.  Journalist Firing and Censorship, Stanford University  (back)

4.  ibid.
Also, Dan Guthrie's original piece can be read at http://www.dreamscape.com/morgana/thepress.htm (scroll down)  (back)

5.  ibid.
Also, Tom Gutting's original piece can be read at http://www.dreamscape.com/morgana/thepress.htm (scroll down)  (back)

6.  ibid.
The cartoon can be seen at http://www.stanford.edu/class/comm217/projects/sep11/mccarthy.html  (back)

7.  ibid. (back)

8.  "German Justice Minister Compares Bush to Hitler," Bob Schwartz, Sept. 19 '02, http://www.sf.indymedia.org/print.php?id=150221  (back)

9.  "Canadian Government Aide Who Called Bush a 'Moron' Resigns," The New York Times, November 27, 2002, p. A6  (back)

10.  "A Bush Parody Is Banned in Britain," The New York Times, November 28, 2002, p. A16  (back)

11.  McCarthyism Watch, The Progressive (Matthew Rothschild) -- A series of updates about various forms of censorship.  (back)

12.  "No More Fanaticism as Usual," Op-Ed by Salman Rushdie, The New York Times, November 27, 2002, p. A23  (back)

13.  David Peterson e-mail to President Yanikoski, "Saint Xavier University, Academic Freedom, And The Kirstein Affair," can be read at http://www.collegefreedom.org/kirpet2.htm
The correspondence between Peterson and Yanikoski can be found at http://www.collegefreedom.org/kirstein.htm  (back)

14.  "...For the perfection of things must be measured according to their inner nature only, and things are not more or less perfect because they please our senses or offend them."
--Spinoza (1632-1677)  (back)

15.  It should be noted that as much as Prof. Kirstein's words were highly regrettable, his lapse in judgment and manners pales in comparison to Cadet Kurpiel's ethical lapse, that of disseminating the content of a private correspondence; a lapse for which the Cadet did not get suspended or reprimanded by the USAFA, an institution that prides itself in holding to higher standards than its civilian equivalents, the institutions of higher learning (a lack of action that is most welcome by this writer).

There is something more disturbing however. One must wonder why Cadet Kurpiel contacted Professor Kirstein in the first place. Kirstein is a professor of English history, not political sciences. So, why contact an historian for advertising a forum that is political in nature? Why not contact the department of political sciences or that of journalism? Was Cadet Kurpiel aware of a report by the History News Network that Peter Kirstein had "encouraged members of the United States armed forces to disobey orders should President Bush order an invasion of Iraq?" See, http://hnn.us/articles/288.html#kirstein11-8-02 Or was he aware that Peter Kirstein's name was listed on Campus Watch? Imagine a member of the War Resisters League contacting members of the military or pro-war professors to ask them what's the best way to advertize in their respective institutions about a forthcoming Nonviolent Symposium, or asking Daniel Pipes if he could help organize a forum about Israeli brutal occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip... Yet, by the same token, Kurpiel's original e-mail was addressed to "Dear Sir or Ma'am." For whatever reasons, something seems to be amiss in this story.  (back)


Please read:

- The Letters to the Editor posted on 12/2/02 regarding this affair.

- The Letters to the Editor posted on 12/16/02 in which Prof. Kirstein writes to Swans, the author responds, and a reader sends a thoughtful letter.


Gilles d'Aymery is Swans' publisher and co-editor.

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Published December 2, 2002
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