University of Minnesota
Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies


Following the Story

Following the Story

Does Academic Freedom Protect Holocaust Deniers?

Replies from Cary Nelson and Naomi Schaefer Riley
The Chronicle of Higher Education

Please see the full article at The Chronicle for Higher Education for the complete article and other comments.

Cary Nelson Replies

It is not actually tenure that may shield Kaukab Siddique from sanctions for his public statements about the Holocaust; it is academic freedom, a value that survives only if it protects remarks we despise as well as those we endorse. If Siddique were to be punished, he would no doubt immediately claim that his academic freedom had been violated. That would trigger due process and a hearing before a committee of his peers, whether he was a tenured faculty member, a first-year assistant professor, or an adjunct faculty member teaching a single course.

Siddique is certainly trying to "game the system," but his fanaticism may nonetheless lead him where he should not go. The issue in a hearing would be professional fitness, which is a matter to be determined by a faculty review or hearing committee. That involves academic judgments about professional competence and professional boundaries. The American Association of University Professors distinguishes between speech that can be held to standards of professional competence and speech that has no bearing on professional competence. A biologist who asserts that the theory of evolution is a hoax would be in danger of demonstrating himself or herself unfit.

Holocaust denial may have comparable status for someone teaching world literature.
Disagreeing about the meaning of the Holocaust is entirely permissible and, indeed, inevitable. The meaning of a historical event is always open to debate. It cannot be permanently settled. Nor can one assume one has all the facts now. New documents may be discovered indefinitely. But the fundamental truth that the Nazis successfully carried out an organized, even industrialized, program that killed millions of Jews is not in dispute.

Some have claimed further that comparing Israel to Nazi Germany is a factual error comparable to Holocaust denial, but I cannot agree. Comparing Israel to Nazi Germany is a hyperbolic political analogy, an interpretation one may support or dispute, but it does not rise to the level of Holocaust denial. My reactions to Siddique's remarks are a mix of anger and sadness. He has absurdly asserted that there is "not one" document proving the Holocaust occurred. He has looked into the hollow gaze of concentration-camp victims and declared they were starving only because Allied bombing disrupted German food distribution. That suggests Siddique's humanity is distorted and degraded, but it is only his professional fitness that is at issue in reviewing his academic status.

Naomi Schaefer Riley Replies

Lincoln University claims to be the oldest historically black college in the country. Its graduates include Langston Hughes and Thurgood Marshall. Today Lincoln is employing a professor who has called the Holocaust a myth. Kaukab Siddique's "humanity is distorted and degraded," in the words of Cary Nelson. And yet, unless Siddique is teaching something directly related to the Holocaust, Nelson believes he has a legitimate claim to keeping his position. The school's most prominent graduates and its namesake are probably rolling over in their graves, but in the name of academic freedom, Siddique must stay.

In the process of standing up for the "remarks we despise as well as those we endorse," Nelson has lost sight of the noble principles that undergird this country and its educational institutions. Defending hateful statements is not the only good here. Professors should be not only passers-on of information; they should be models of intellectual and moral integrity. The idea that we should overlook Siddique's "distorted and degraded humanity" and consider only his "professional fitness" is plainly offensive.

I would add that Cary Nelson's attempt to divorce tenure from academic freedom is nothing short of baffling. For decades we have heard that tenure is vital to protecting academic freedom, but now it turns out that the AAUP thinks professors without tenure would be protected just the same. In fact, the way tenure has evolved, it is virtually impossible to get rid of faculty members who have it, even if they are, amazingly, Holocaust deniers.

It is hard to imagine that Lincoln would keep on Siddique or that Northwestern would have continued to put up with Arthur Butz were it not for their tenured status. Maybe there are adjunct or assistant professors with similarly offensive views out there, but I haven't heard about them. Some may think that's a sign that universities are failing to defend remarks they despise, but I think a university free of Holocaust deniers is something to be proud of. Which goes to show how low we have set the bar.