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Post-9/11 Attack on Academic Freedom

Erwin Chemerinsky and the Post-9/11 Attack on Academic Freedom

By Marjorie Cohn
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

One week after renowned legal scholar Erwin Chemerinsky was offered the position of dean of the new law school at the University of California at Irvine, Chancellor Michael Drake withdrew the offer, informing Duke Law Professor Chemerinsky he had proved to be "too politically controversial." Chemerinsky is one of the most eminent law teachers and constitutional law scholars in the country. Author of a leading treatise on constitutional law, he has written four books and more than 100 law review articles. In 2005, he was named by Legal Affairs as one of "the top 20 legal thinkers in America."

This is the latest chapter in the post 9/11 attack on academic freedom under the guise of protecting security. Two weeks after 9/11, former White House spokesman Ari Fleischer cautioned Americans "they need to watch what they say, watch what they do." The American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a group founded by Lynne Cheney and Senator Joe Lieberman, accused universities of being the weak link in the war on terror; it included the names of 117 "un-American" professors, students and staff members. A few months later, a blacklisting Internet site called Campus Watch was launched. It publishes dossiers on scholars who criticize US Middle East policy and Israel's treatment of the Palestinians. Earlier this year, the Bruin Alumni Association at UCLA offered students $100 to tape left-wing professors.

In 2003, the American Association of University Professors recalled the "still-vivid memories of the McCarthy era" and warned of the perils of sacrificing academic freedom in the war on terror. The premise of their report was "freedom of inquiry and the open exchange of ideas are crucial to the nation's security, and that the nation's security and, ultimately, its well-being are damaged by practices that discourage or impair freedom."

At a 2004 conference on academic freedom at UC Berkeley, Professor Beshara Doumani observed, "Academic freedom in the United States is facing its most important threat since the McCarthy era of the 1950s. In the aftermath of 11 September 2001, government agencies and private organizations have been subjecting universities to an increasingly sophisticated infrastructure of surveillance, intervention, and control. In the name of the war against terrorism, civil liberties have been seriously eroded, open debate limited, and dissent stifled."

Art. 9, § 9 of the California Constitution, which sets forth the powers and duties of the Regents of the University of California, provides, "The university shall be entirely independent of all political or sectarian influence and kept free therefrom in the appointment of its regents and in the administration of its affairs."

Drake denied he was influenced by pressure from donors, politicians or the UC California Board of Regents. Yet psychology professor Elizabeth Loftus, a member of the search committee, told the Los Angeles Times that Drake told the committee he was compelled to make the decision by outside forces whom he did not identify. Her account was confirmed by a second member of the committee, who talked to the Times on condition of anonymity.

Chemerinsky has handled several cases in the appellate courts and the US Supreme Court, and has testified many times before Congressional and state legislative committees, including before the Senate Judiciary Committee in the Samuel Alito confirmation hearings. Chemerinsky has represented Valerie Plame Wilson, the CIA agent whose identity was revealed by members of the Bush administration; a Guantánamo detainee asserting his right to habeas corpus; a man sentenced to 50 years-to-life under California's three strikes law; and a person challenging the Texas Ten Commandments monument.

UCI's November 16, 2006, press release announcing the inauguration of the new law school said, "UCI law graduates will be particularly encouraged to pursue careers in public service, including non-governmental organizations and philanthropic agencies. As part of their training, UCI law students will provide legal services to people who are unable to afford counsel. They also will be encouraged to pursue public interest law through programs focusing on underserved communities." Chemerinsky is devoted to public service as well as legal scholarship and education. He was elected by voters to be a Commissioner and chaired the Los Angeles Elected Charter Reform Commission; the new Charter was adopted by voters in 1999. He also spearheaded the Los Angeles Independent Analysis of the Board of Inquiry Report on the Rampart Police Scandal, Prepared at the Request of the Police Protective League, September 2000.

Untold numbers of law students have been helped through law school and the bar exam by Chemerinsky, including National Lawyers Guild Student Vice President Teague Briscoe, who said, "Chemerinsky on Constitutional Law saved my life in law school and I loved him doing the Professional Responsibility lectures but, most of all, I really dug that he was a progressive law prof who defends an unpopular client."

David Dow, adjunct lecturer at the Annenberg School of Journalism and former veteran CBS correspondent who frequently interviewed Chemerinsky on legal issues, said, "I can't imagine any considerations that would outweigh the prospect of launching a law school with an internationally-known, highly-respected, fair-minded expert at the helm. Apart from his legal and professional credentials, Erwin has demonstrated an ability to get along well with colleagues and the community wherever he's been." Dow's words were echoed by Stanford Law School Dean Larry Kramer, who called Chemerinsky "the nicest person in legal education." Conservative law professor Douglas Kmiec wrote of Chemerinsky, "there is no person I would sooner trust to be a guardian of my constitutional liberty. Nor is there anyone I would sooner turn to for a candid, intellectually honest appraisal of an academic proposal."

One of the "controversial" matters Drake cited to Chemerinsky was an August op-ed the professor wrote in the Los Angeles Times criticizing a proposed regulation by then Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to shorten the time death row inmates have to file habeas corpus petitions. In an op-ed in the September 14 Times, Chemerinsky explained, "There are more than 275 individuals on death row in California without lawyers for their post-convictions proceedings. The effect of the new rule would be that many individuals, including innocent ones, would not get the chance to have their cases reviewed in federal court."

Drake's action, which sends a clear message to academics they must avoid speaking out or writing about controversial issues, is a threat to academic freedom. As Chemerinsky wrote, "Without academic freedom, the reality is that many faculty members would be chilled and timid in expressing their views, and the discussion that is essential for the advancement of thought would be lost."

Hundreds of faculty, students and staff at UC Irvine are urging reinstatement of Chemerinsky. In an open letter to Drake, they wrote, "We are disturbed because of the deep violation both of the integrity of the university and of the intrusion of outrageously one-sided politics and unacceptable ideological considerations into a hiring process that should be driven by academic excellence, administrative experience, leadership capacity, and personal integrity."

Chancellor Michael Drake should immediately reinstate Professor Erwin Chemerinsky as dean of the UC Irvine Law School.


Marjorie Cohn is a professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law and president of the National Lawyers Guild. She is the author of Cowboy Republic: Six Ways the Bush Gang Has Defied the Law. Her articles are archived at

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