Over at Crooked Timber, guest blogger Eric Rauchway has a set of links about academic freedom. Over here at Berkeley there’s a bit of a push to get the law school to fire John Yoo, author of the infamous “torture memos,” which provided the (il)legal justification for contravening the Geneva Convention. Yoo has tenure, so firing him is quite an extreme move. The argument for firing him is that he engaged in gross professional misconduct and is a war criminal and letting him teach constitutional law is questionable given his willingness to toss out the Constitution. The other side says that as a matter of academic freedom, he should be allowed to engage in whatever political activities he likes outside the academy and that he has already been judged an excellent scholar by the standards of his discipline. Firing him would set a dangerous McCarthy-esque precedent and we should err on the side of caution.
In my view, unless Yoo is formally censured by his own peers, public pressure to fire him is just that — public pressure. Jane Kramer wrote a fascinating piece in The New Yorker about the tenure battle of Nadia Abu El-Haj, an anthropologist at Barnard who drew the ire of some fringe pro-Israel because her book, Facts on the Ground tries to eludicate the discourse (in a Foucauldian sense) of archaeology in Israel and its relationship to Zionism and the concept of the Israeli state. These groups organized a petition threatening Barnard and Columbia in order to get them to deny her tenure. There too we saw a public outcry over perceived harmful actions of an academic. In Abu El-Haj’s case, her detractors basically made up things about her, selectively and misleadingly quoted from her book, and pretty much didn’t have a leg to stand on. Yoo’s case is different — he clearly wrote some odious memos that have had horrible consequences. However, unless he is disbarred (which is possible), I tend to side with those who say finding a loophole to fire him would do more harm than good.
Somewhere, languishing on my shelf is the book Academic Freedom after September 11. I read half of it and then switched to something less dry, but maybe I should go back to it now that my interest has been re-whetted.