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