The AHA and Academic Freedom in the Age of Homeland Security, Revisited

Barbara Weinstein, December 2007

Now that I live within easy walking distance of New York City's leading art house cinemas, I thought most of my trips to the movies would be to see the latest indie flick or edgy documentary. Instead, I still seem to be going to the movies mainly with my son, to see commercial films all too many of which require the wearing of 3-D glasses. So it was that I recently found myself—popcorn and plastic specs in hand—watching the trailer for National Treasure 2. The first National Treasure was, I thought, a preposterous but mildly amusing adventure film that did have the virtue of featuring a history buff as its hero. Of course, Nicolas Cage's character has as much to do with history as Indiana Jones has to do with archaeology. But anything that portrays historians as glamorous adventurers who can uncover large amounts of treasure has to be good for the profession. So I was watching the trailer of the inevitable sequel with some interest when suddenly there was a reference to the movie's "macguffin"—a massive tome called The Presidents' Book of Secrets. Within seconds I was laughing uncontrollably, and I only stopped when I realized that nobody else in the theater seemed to find this funny. Indeed, this startling instance of life imitating art was no laughing matter. With Executive Order 13233, President Bush and Vice President Cheney effectively announced that they could now stow away their papers for the foreseeable future in what amounts to a real-life presidents' (and vice presidents') "Book of Secrets."

It is a sign of how much I have been worrying about academic freedom issues over these past 12 months that a bit of escapist entertainment could tap into that anxiety and compel me also to return in this, my valedictory column as president, to a theme that I discussed earlier, in my January and April essays. Even though the news this year has not been entirely bad, all told, this has hardly been a good time for the cause of unfettered scholarly inquiry and exchange; E.O. 13233 is only one item on a list of developments that have made those of us who care about academic freedom and public access to information increasingly uneasy. At various moments in the course of the year I have had occasion to recall the title of Prasenjit Duara's book, Rescuing History from the Nation, but with a far more immediate and literal meaning than Duara may have intended. In the age of homeland security, we routinely witness the ways in which "the national interest" can be deployed to diminish the free exchange of ideas and access to official documents that most of us would regard as essential for historical scholarship. Emboldened by the very real concerns over national security in the wake of 9/11, both federal and state governments have nibbled away at the parameters of academic freedom, and have made many of us feel even more insecure.

Three principal forms of state intrusion into academic affairs have diminished or threaten to diminish academic freedom for historians and other scholars. The first is the denial of visas to scholars from abroad; the second is the withdrawal of government records and other documentation from public and scholarly scrutiny; the third is the campaign spearheaded by David Horowitz to have state legislatures pass what Horowitz calls the "Academic Bill of Rights" (ABOR).

With regard to the visa issue, first the good news: after more than two years of anxiously waiting and wondering, Waskar Ari Chachaki finally received a visa from the U.S. Consulate in La Paz, Bolivia, which enabled him to join his admirably steadfast colleagues in the Department of History at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln (UNL). But while this particular story has a happy ending, there are still many other scholars who anxiously await their visas somewhere outside the United States, and others who have been denied a visa and cannot enter at all, even for a brief symposium. Indeed, just days after hearing the welcome news about Waskar Ari, the AHA received word of another historian who had been told that her visa would be delayed for an indeterminate amount of time under similarly bewildering circumstances.

Moreover, even if all the scholars who have experienced a visa delay or denial in recent years suddenly found themselves in possession of a passport with the appropriate stamps, the damage would have been done. As Waskar Ari succinctly put it in remarks addressed to faculty and students at UNL soon after his arrival, he used to think of himself as a "transnational scholar," someone who circulated freely in the world of ideas, and for whom the scholarly community transcended any specific national location. Now he feels like a "foreign scholar," someone who must carefully consider where he can go and what he can do. Who knows how many other one-time "transnational scholars" now feel like foreigners or aliens who have no rights, even to an explanation for why they have been or are being excluded.

Not only does the U.S. government's policy of excluding scholars on undisclosed ideological grounds place restrictions on all of us with regard to the open exchange of scholarly ideas, it has also eroded our moral authority to address violations of academic freedom elsewhere in the world. Take the recent case of Middle East scholar Haleh Esfandiari, detained for several months in Iran's notorious Evin Prison. Her treatment at the hands of the Ahmadinejad regime was far more inhumane than the denial of a visa, but it is worth recalling that her infraction, according to the Iranian government, consisted of fomenting a "soft revolution"—that is, supporting and spreading ideas that could be seen as eventually creating an ideological climate propitious for the overthrow of the current regime. This accusation is not absurd—as director of the Wilson Center's Middle East programs, Esfandiari surely makes statements on a nearly daily basis (as do most of us) that President Ahmadinejad would regard as incompatible with an ideological climate conducive to his government's stability and security. Yet the idea of detaining or expelling a scholar for expressing ideas that could be construed as criticism by those in power seems both outrageous and profoundly incompatible with even the most minimal notions of academic freedom. Unfortunately, because of its own attitudes toward foreign scholars, the U.S. government is hardly in a position to denounce the Iranian government's policies in this regard.

The second form of intrusion I mentioned—the withdrawal of access to public records—may not seem as direct a danger to academic freedom as the denial of visas to foreign scholars, but it is one that is especially troubling for the historical profession. Over the years, historians have been in the forefront of movements to link freedom of expression with freedom of information, and for several decades, in large part thanks to Watergate, the United States seemed to be moving in the direction of greater openness. As I noted in an earlier commentary, this trend came to an abrupt halt with the George W. Bush administration, as staff from various government agencies began a frantic effort to classify records and exempt them from the executive order signed by President Clinton in 1995, automatically declassifying all federal documents over 25 years old. One absurd (sorry, I know I'm overusing this word) effect of this "grab and go" approach to classification and redaction was the extensive re-classification of documents, some of which had already been issued in published form. This process only decelerated following protests from the historical community and the timely intervention of national archivist Allen Weinstein.1

Then there's Executive Order 13233 (a.k.a., The Presidents' Book of Secrets). Issued in November 2001—at the height of President Bush's post-9/11 powers—this order bestowed upon the occupant of the White House and the vice president the right to withdraw their papers from public scrutiny indefinitely. It also allowed previous presidents' and vice presidents' papers, dating back to the Reagan administration, to be withheld, and endowed not only the holders of these offices with these prerogatives, but also their designated heirs. In effect, E.O. 13233 superseded E.O 12667, which had been issued in January 1989 by none other than Ronald Reagan. Reagan's order had spelled out the procedures for implementing the Presidential Records Act of 1978 that stipulates, among other things, that all papers would be made available within 12 years after a president left office.

Here, too, there is at least partial good news. As Lee White reported in the November 2007 Perspectives, in April 2007 the House voted in veto-proof numbers to overturn E.O. 13233.2 Meanwhile, a federal district court has declared a portion of the executive order unconstitutional. Presidents do not have the right, according to Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, to keep their papers classified indefinitely. But E.O. 13233 may be like that vampire that doesn't die no matter how many stakes get driven through its heart. The court decision left several provisions of the executive order intact (though the ruling was "without prejudice," meaning that future lawsuits may be brought). As for congressional action, the bill in the Senate is being held up by Senator Bunning of Kentucky. So Bush and Cheney's drive to inflate the powers of the presidency and vice presidency and reduce the executive's accountability has encountered some serious speed bumps, but has not yet been brought to a halt.

Finally, there's the curious case of David Horowitz, 1960s radical turned extreme right-winger. Bolstered by the righteous zeal of the convert and $15 million in grants from like-minded foundations, Horowitz has mounted a campaign for "intellectual diversity." Apparently assuming that, absent bias or prejudice, the faculty of colleges and universities would represent a cross-section of American public opinion, Horowitz claims that the small percentage of Republicans in academic life must be the result of deliberate discrimination. Cleverly appropriating the language first invoked by progressive scholars, Horowitz has sought to convince state legislatures to pass his so-called Academic Bill of Rights. ABOR would require "balance" (as he puts it) in everything from departmental hiring decisions to university curricula and campus speakers.

The good news here is that, so far, no state has actually adopted ABOR. The bad news is that Horowitz continues to gain the ear of legislators in a number of states, and there's evidence of administrators and faculty at public universities, especially in "red" states, preempting legislative action by policing themselves in ways that are not conducive to a climate of academic freedom. My evidence here is piecemeal and anecdotal—it consists of items such as a faculty member on Horowitz's "101 most dangerous academics in America" list who is now extremely careful about what he says in class, or a dean who instructs her faculty to avoid discussing candidates in an election year so as not to incite accusations of "politicization" in the classroom. I suspect many of us could add our own examples to the list. I also have a hunch that Horowitz's activism has encouraged other groups and individuals outside the university to organize and intervene in decisions about appointments, tenuring, and promotion that should be based on scholarly evaluations, not political litmus tests or the fear of losing alumni contributions.

My point is not to imply that Horowitz is utterly and entirely incorrect—there are surely instances where a certain ideological orthodoxy emerges in a particular department or institution, and it becomes difficult for someone with a very different perspective to get a job or even teach a course there. But the biggest potential threat by far to academic freedom is always the State (by which I mean the government at any level). The capacity of "politically correct" colleagues to suppress a particular line of research or argument pales in comparison to the power of the state to crush the life out of free academic expression. State intrusion into matters of "historical truth" should be unwelcome even when apparently well-intended. It is for this reason that, at the International Committee of Historical Sciences (CISH) meeting in Beijing this past September, AHA delegates read out an AHA Council statement opposing pending European Union legislation that would broadly criminalize "genocide denial." The statement identifies the scholarly community as the primary arbiter of historical controversies, and insists that "if any other body, especially a body with the right to initiate legal proceedings and impose penalties, seeks to influence the course of historical research, the result will inevitably be intimidation of scholars and distortion of their findings."3 Any initiative, therefore, that claims to be promoting academic "rights" by expanding the involvement and the decision-making power of the state in the day-to-day functioning of universities is an outright fraud.

Even David Horowitz himself seems aware of this at some level since, as the ubiquitous Stanley Fish observed, Horowitz is always a little vague and slippery when pressed to explain exactly how "ABOR" would be implemented.4 He apparently realizes that many people who might share his dismay that reputed leftists have "taken over" the universities would nonetheless recoil from a state crackdown on professors' reading lists or the unilateral imposition of new faculty members whose key credentials are their right-wing political affiliations.

Lest I seem unduly alarmist, here is a free sample of the absurdities (at least I'm using the substantive form here) one can get once politicians decide they are in a position to define how something like history should be taught. A 2006 education statute passed by the Florida state legislature mandated that "American history shall be viewed as factual, not as constructed, shall be viewed as knowable, teachable, and testable, and shall be defined as the creation of a new nation based largely on the universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence."

As Mary Beth Norton pointed out in a delightful rejoinder on the New York Times op-ed page, "Facts mean little or nothing without being interpreted—another word for ‘constructed.' All historians know that facts never speak for themselves."5 Apparently the Florida legislators are not aware of this, or conversely, they are well aware of the faux populist appeal of a declaration about history teaching that evokes both patriotism and anti-intellectualism.

My year as president of the AHA has certainly heightened my awareness of the fragility of academic freedom in the age of homeland security. But it has also heightened my appreciation for the role the AHA can and does play at a time like this. Over the course of the year a certain number of friends and colleagues in the historical profession have confessed to me that they had let their AHA membership lapse and saw no reason to renew it given that you can now get the AHR and Perspectives online, and they don't often go to the annual meetings. At first I was not sure how to respond—I myself greatly prefer reading a journal or a magazine that I can hold in my hands—but that seemed a rather slim basis for persuading someone to fork over the equivalent of 40 lattes from the local Starbucks.

I have no doubt, however, that every single person who confessed this to me has reacted with some degree of outrage and alarm to matters such as the denial of visas to scholars from abroad, or the withholding of federal records and presidential papers, or the attempt to convince state legislatures to intervene in the academic life of public universities. I respectfully suggest that they put their money where their mouth is. As I noted above, the news is not entirely bad this year, and a major reason for that is the AHA's ongoing efforts to promote the interests of academic freedom and historical research. In the case of Waskar Ari, the lion's share of the credit has to go to the UNL history department, which kept his position open for two solid years and initiated a lawsuit to pressure Homeland Security to act on the visa application. But the AHA supported UNL's actions at every turn, and I am confident that having the support of a large, long-established learned society made it a little easier to take a stand.

I would also tell these friends and colleagues that the AHA is by far the largest sustainer of the National Coalition for History, whose indefatigable director, Lee White, has been front and center in the controversies over E.O. 13233 and the reclassification of documents in the National Archives, together with AHA Executive Director Arnita Jones. The AHA was the leading plaintiff in the partially successful lawsuit against E.O. 13233, and has played an active role in organizing testimony before Congress about questions related to government records and presidential papers. It is conceivable that some of our members (or former members) feel the AHA isn't doing enough on these matters or should be taking a different tack, but the appropriate response in that case is to become more involved, rather than retreating and doing nothing at all. At a moment like this, the AHA—an association that has been in existence for 123 years and was formally incorporated by Congress in 1889, and which has over 14,000 members and a Washington-wise staff—is a unique and invaluable resource for advancing the cause of academic freedom. So the next time you're feeling outraged by some government decision regarding a visa for a colleague from abroad or by some refusal to declassify documents, let me suggest that you check to see if your AHA membership is up-to-date. Maybe we'll even throw in a pair of 3-D glasses.

—Barbara Weinstein (NYU) is president of the AHA.


1. Bruce Craig, "Historians Expose Government Reclassification Effort," Perspectives, April 2006.

2. Lee White, "The Fight over Presidential Records," Perspectives, November 2007.

3. The text of the statement is on page 50 of the November 2007 issue of Perspectives and is online at

4. Stanley Fish, "‘Intellectual Diversity': The Trojan Horse of a Dark Design," The Chronicle Review, February 13, 2004.

5. Mary Beth Norton, "History Under Construction in Florida," New York Times, July 2, 2006. The online version is available at The AHA's statement on this issue is at