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War of Words

UT professor gets slammed by the UT president in Houston Chronicle for view on attacks

By Lee Nichols, Fri., Sept. 28, 2001

Whenever the emperor starts parading around naked, you can bet that UT journalism professor Bob Jensen will say so, loudly and proudly. Just as predictably, others will quickly chastise him for not oohing and aahing over the emperor's beautiful wardrobe.

On Sept. 14, three days after the infamous terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, the Houston Chronicle printed a Jensen editorial headlined, "U.S. just as guilty of committing own violent acts." While condemning the attacks, Jensen charged that "this act was no more despicable than the massive acts of terrorism -- the deliberate killing of civilians for political purposes -- that the U.S. government has committed during my lifetime," citing Vietnam, Chile, East Timor, and other examples.

Five days later, UT president Larry R. Faulkner wrote the Houston Chronicle a letter defending Jensen's right to free speech, but making it clear that Jensen does not speak on behalf of the university. "[Using] the same liberty [to speak on his own behalf]," Faulkner wrote that "Jensen is not only misguided, but has become a fountain of undiluted foolishness on issues of public policy." He was "disgusted" by Jensen's article, he added.

Some UT professors angrily denounced Faulkner for his letter, arguing that it could have a "chilling" effect on the freedom of faculty members to speak their minds. But Jensen seems rather unfazed by the controversy.

"Faulkner said three things," Jensen explains. "He said I have a First Amendment right to speak. Okay, that's not news to me -- I teach the First Amendment. I knew that, but I'm glad he said it in public. In the Fifties, university presidents were not quite so respectful of the First Amendment, so I'm grateful that there is that protection and that he honors it. Second, he said I don't speak for the university officially, which is, of course true -- I don't. Third, he said, basically, I'm a fool."

Jensen says he "can endorse" the first two items. As for the third, "I can't even respond to [it], because it's not even an argument -- it's an insult. If he had said, 'Here are the substantive objections I have to Jensen's article,' then I could respond, but he didn't. ... For whatever reason, he just decided to denigrate me, and I don't know how to respond to being denigrated other than to shrug and move on and do the work [of anti-war organizing].

"People have said to me, 'Are you afraid?' We should keep this in perspective," Jensen adds. "I'm a tenured university professor. I'm a very privileged person and being insulted by my boss, on the list of concerns I have right now, doesn't rank very high."

Faulkner told the Chronicle he wrote the letter to the Houston Chronicle in response to a large number of letters, e-mails, and calls "asking a whole range of questions," such as whether Jensen officially spoke for UT, whether Faulkner agreed with Jensen, and how widespread at UT were views such as Jensen's. "I think as the president of a public institution, I don't think I have the latitude just not to reply to large volumes of inquiry like that," he said.

Faulkner also says he doesn't take issue with the tagline on the editorial identifying Jensen with UT, but just wanted to make it clear that Jensen's views were only his own.

Asked to explain exactly what in Jensen's historically accurate examples constituted "foolishness," Faulkner says, "I think the analogies are foolish that are drawn in that article and in many of the other things that he does. That's my personal opinion. There are a lot of analogies drawn in his writings, and in that writing, about events that involved the U.S. government in previous years and previous settings being directly analogous to what's happened here. I think those analogies are inaccurate, and that produces a foolishness to the whole article."

Asked to be more specific, Faulkner said, "I'm not going to get into a detailed debate here."

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