Letter to the Editor, Issue 37, Volume 19

The First Amendment, which guarantees free-speech rights, is fundamental to the highest ideals of American constitutional democracy and our nation’s system of higher education. However, no court, constitution, law or leader can guarantee any right once and for all, forever into the future. Even constitutionally protected rights need to be monitored, pro­tected, and every attempt to whit­tle away at them must be vigor­ously challenged.

Free speech rights at CNM are under threat. Last year, the CNM administration temporarily shut down The CNM Chronicle and suspended the staff over the publication of its “sex issue” and then reversed its decision less than 24 hours later after a deluge of public attention. More recently, new collective bargaining agree­ments for full-time and part-time faculties contained language designed to prohibit the CNM Employees Union (CNMEU) from using “College resources… for any union business of any type, a political campaign for an indi­vidual candidate, an issue or an organization.” In administration’s initial proposal to the part-time faculty negotiating team, of which I was a member, The Chronicle was identified by name as one of those “resources,” though it does not appear in the final collective bargaining agreement.

It is no secret to anyone famil­iar with the CNM that this admin­istration is obsessively concerned with protecting and polishing its public image. Nothing in the new faculty contracts directly attempts to limit an individual faculty mem­ber’s free speech right, but it is naïve to think they are not threat­ened. The contract clause I quoted is vague. Could it be interpreted to prohibit a union official from responding to an inquiry from a Chronicle reporter? Perhaps. After the new contracts were reported on in the news media, CNM offi­cials issued pronouncements in which they affirmed their support for individual free-speech rights. What is a reasonable person to believe? Is the truth more likely to be found in the actions of CNM administration or in their state­ments once their actions have been exposed to public scrutiny?

CNM faculty, staff and stu­dents are on a “slippery slope,” by which I mean an action or law, initially restricted to a specific situ­ation or group, like The Chronicle or CNMEU, which opens the door for a much broader and pos­sibly illegal application of the same restrictions. For that reason, it is in my self-interest to defend the free-speech rights of The Chronicle and CNMEU because any curtail­ments of their rights brings CNM one step closer to an attempt at restricting my individual right to free speech. Similar logic compelled the American Civil Liberties Union in 1978 to defend a neo-Nazi group’s right to stage a public political rally complete with swastikas in Skokie, Illinois, where a significant portion of the residents were survivors of the Holocaust. The ACLU’s argument, which was savagely criticized at the time by many of its own mem­bers, was that protecting the free-speech rights of a group as odious as the neo-Nazis was necessary to guarantee the free-speech rights of all Americans.

CNMEU and The Chronicle may be the only organizations associated with CNM that admin­istration cannot completely con­trol. At the moment, I am less concerned about the union than I am for The Chronicle because I believe the newspaper has already been targeted for elimination. My suspicion is fueled not by any state­ment made by an administrator, but by what has already been done: three months after The Chronicle was shut down last March CNM launched The Suncat Times, which is described on the college’s website as a “student newsletter” distributed by email.

“Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” has been attributed to the abolitionist Wendell Phillips, sometimes to Thomas Jefferson, though a similar statement was made as early as 1790 by the Irish political figure John Philpot Curran. The statement is as sound today as it was in the 18th and 19th centuries and I hope it will heeded by liberals and conservatives, liber­tarians and socialists, people who support unions and people who oppose them, as well as friends of The Chronicle and people at CNM who never read an issue.

Seamus O’Sullivan, Ph.D.

Part-time faculty, politi­cal science and sociology

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