More on Air Force Censorship

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In my original commentary about Lt. Col. Disler's case, I failed to present the Air Force Academy's side of the story. An Academy spokesperson has told an Associated Press reporter that policy requires professors to obtain approval from Department Heads before inviting outside speakers into the classroom. The spokesperson said that Lt. Col. Disler was disciplined for failing to follow that rule, not for addressing a controversial topic in class, saying: "She did violate policy that did exist at that time and still exists today." I apologize for the omission of the Air Force's side of the story.

That said, I continue to disagree with the Air Force Academy's interpretation of the case. The policy in question is known as "FOI 36-173 Class Visits." At the time of the incident, the policy stated that, "When in the opinion of the Department Head, the presence of a visitor could result in publicity for the Air Force Academy, the Department Head must notify the Vice Dean of the Faculty in advance."

All sides agree that before inviting guest speakers to class, Lt. Col. Disler obtained approval from one of her bosses, the Course Director. But she did not notify or get permission from another boss, the Department Head. That said, no publicity was planned or reasonably expected for this event. I am aware of literally dozens of professors at military service academies who have discussed "don't ask, don't tell" in their classes without attracting publicity. I myself have taught dozens of classes about "don't ask, don't tell" at military service academies without attracting publicity. Because there was no reasonable expectation of publicity, the requirement to seek the approval of the Department Head, who would in turn notify the Vice Dean, seems moot.

Lt. Col. Disler's reprimand, known as her Letter of Counseling, does not mention any violation of policy. Rather, it reprimands her for failing "to meet standards of professional conduct" and for a "lack of judgment." It is odd, if Lt. Col. Disler violated policy, that her reprimand letter would fail to note the violation. Lt. Col. Disler says that her letter did not mention a violation of policy because there was no violation. The Academy should explain why, given that it is now claiming that Lt. Col. Disler violated policy, she was not reprimanded for the violation. It should also produce a written copy of the policy or procedure which she violated and which was in effect at the time. Neither Lt. Col. Disler nor I have been able to obtain a copy of any such policy.

There is a surface and a subtext to any case, and caution certainly seems reasonable in the wake of the sexual assault and religious intolerance scandals of 2003. However, policy that is implemented unwisely has the potential to victimize both innocent persons and academic freedom. The surface question here is whether Lt. Col. Disler violated policy. On that count, available evidence suggests to me that she did not. The subtextual question, however, is how much latitude professors should have to address tough issues in class. So, aside from the procedural question about whether or not Lt. Col. Disler was required to get permission from her Course Director, another lens through which to understand the situation is that someone reacted negatively to a discussion of "don't ask, don't tell" and complained. Rather than acknowledging the value of addressing a wide range of topics, the Academy indulged the complaint and then framed the indulgence in terms of Lt. Col. Disler's violation of policy.

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