There's been much written in the last day or so about UCLAProfs.com, a site that criticizes supposedly extreme left-wing UCLA professors, and that "is offering students payments of up to $100 per class to provide information" — especially audiotapes — "on instructors who are 'abusive, one-sided or off-topic' in advocating political ideologies." My colleague Stephen Bainbridge has more.
I've checked out the site, and find many of the criticisms to be quite shallow and unpersuasive. (I should note that I've informally responded to some questions by the site's author in the past, but I doubt that I'd do so in the future, given the pretty low quality of the materials.) I also do think the offering of money to students is a bit unsavory, though I'm not positive how bad it is; much information-gathering, after all, is done by people who get paid, and sometimes get paid in rough correlation to the stuff they unearth. My colleague Jerry Kang points out that tape recording for money might violate a specific California statutory provision; it's an interesting question whether applying the law to tape recordings in this context (which is also far from the context that seems to have animated the enactment of the law) would be an unconstitutional burden on information gathering.
Nonetheless, I do think we need to put all this in perspective. My colleagues and I are public servants. We have a certain degree of influence over public affairs, both through our public commentary and through our teaching. Others disagree with us, and think we're doing a public disservice rather than a public service. They're entitled to criticize us, and to monitor our public performance of our duties to see whether that performance is, in their view, lacking. I try to imagine what I would think if someone from the Left set up a site to criticize Prof. Bainbridge, me, and my (rather few) conservative colleagues, and to solicit concrete evidence of our supposed misdeeds; I would like to think that I would recognize that this was their right, both legally and ethically.
Now it's true that this may have a "chilling effect" in the sense of deterring some people from saying controversial things, in class or outside it. But all criticism has such an effect; much criticism is intended to have such an effect. It's even good when criticism has such a deterrent effect, for instance when it deters us from saying foolish or unsound things. If you criticize my posts, my articles, or my lectures, and I recognize that your criticism is apt — that my lectures were too partisan, or that my arguments were unsound — then I may well change what I say. That's criticism performing its proper function.
And if I think your criticism is unsound, my duty is to remain undeterred. It's not always an easy duty to fulfill. But look: Most of my colleagues have tenure. Even our untenured colleagues have the protection of being reviewed by their peers, and peers who are generally unlikely to much sympathize with what the UCLAProfs.com site says. We're in a much better position than other public servants, who routinely have to deal with criticism. If we're not robust enough to resist unsound criticisms — if we're deterred from saying certain things even when we think they should be said — what's the point of all the employment protections we have?
If people are criticizing us unfairly, we should fault them for that. (Stephen Bainbridge does so, for instance.) But labeling this (as one professor quoted here did) "a reactionary form of McCarthyism" strikes me as no more sound or effective than the pejoratives that UCLAProfs.com sometimes uses itself. As Prof. Bainbridge points out, "If you can't tell the difference between the abuse of position by a United States Senator backed by the coercive power of the state and the exercise of free speech by a bunch of disgruntled alumni, well...."
UPDATE: Stephen Bainbridge writes more about the power of technology, and closes with this:
Getting feedback from the proletariat is always unsettling for authority figures . . . . The initial and, perhaps natural, reaction is to decry it as McCarthyism and a danger and so on.
Upon mature reflection, however, we have to realize that the world has changed. Those over whom we have authority now have at their disposal technology that gives them a very loud megaphone. Very public criticism has become the lot of all authority figures, including those within the ivory tower.
Much of that criticism will be unfair, uninformed, or just plain dumb. Isn't it Sturgeon's Law that says 90% of everything is crap? But so what? As my friend and colleague Eugene Volokh notes [quote of the "if I think your criticism is unsound, my duty is to remain undeterred" paragraph omitted -EV].
Precisely. And so I say to my colleagues: Welcome to the 21st Century. It's going to be a very bumpy ride.