Professors' Rights to Free Speech at Risk Nationwide

The University of Illinois' controversial decision to rescind its offer of employment to Professor Steven Salaita in reaction to his Twitter commentary about Israel continues to generate headlines. Last Monday, Salaita filed suit against the university, alleging that it violated a state open records law by failing to provide his attorneys with documents relating to the decision not to hire him. Further litigation is all but guaranteed, prolonging attention to an embarrassing misstep for the university that has generated condemnation from both left and right in recent months.

For free speech advocates, the university's decision to renege on its agreement to hire Salaita reached its nadir with Chancellor Phyllis Wise's half-baked invocation of "civility" as some kind of justification for ditching the professor. In a letter sent campus-wide, Wise stated that the university could "not tolerate ... personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them."

This might sound pleasant enough--if you're only half-listening, or somehow don't hold any ideas that might be disagreeable to anyone, anywhere. But as our colleague Robert Shibley pointed out, public universities are supposed to be where our best and brightest "disrespectfully" "abuse" theories and ideas. That's how scholarship works! (And if you've ever hung out with grad students or read the letters page of The New York Review of Books, you know that scholars can get pretty heated with one another.)

Sadly, the mess at the University of Illinois this fall isn't an isolated incident. Instead, as Elizabeth Nolan Brown astutely observed for Reason, "Salaita's story speaks to a larger, worrying devaluation of free speech in 21st century academia." That's all too true.

Working for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending civil liberties on campus, we've seen faculty nationwide punished for speaking their minds as of late. The list of examples is long:

  • In September 2013, University of Kansas Professor David Guth was placed on administrative leave following a tweet he posted to his personal Twitter account condemning the National Rifle Association. Though the tweet comprised only constitutionally protected speech, the controversy surrounding it inspired the Kansas Board of Regents to enact a new policy on "improper use of social media" that allows the state's public institutions of higher education to punish faculty for a range of protected expression online.

  • Back in January, Bergen Community College Professor Francis Schmidt posted a picture on Google+ of his young daughter wearing a T-shirt that said, "I will take what is mine with fire & blood"--a quote from the popular HBO show Game of Thrones. An automatic email was sent to Schmidt's Google+ contacts, which was forwarded to administrators who deemed it a "threatening email." BCC placed Schmidt on unpaid leave until a psychiatrist attested to his mental fitness and told him he could be terminated if he made "disparaging" comments about the college. BCC finally cleared Schmidt's record only under pressure from the law firm of Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan.
  • Twice a year for over 20 years, Professor Patti Adler included a presentation on prostitution in her "Deviance in U.S. Society" course, which included a skit in which teaching assistants volunteered to portray prostitutes and answer questions as their characters. The course was a perennial favorite at the University of Colorado at Boulder, but in December 2013, administrators told Adler that a former teaching assistant had objected to the presentation. Because some students might be "uncomfortable" (though no students said they were), Adler was given a choice between resigning or canceling the course. Under public pressure, CU-Boulder eventually allowed Adler to return and continue teaching, but by then, participation in the presentation had already been significantly chilled, forcing Adler to discontinue it.
  • In March 2012, Appalachian State University Professor Jammie Price was placed on administrative leave for criticizing the university's handling of sexual assault cases and screening a documentary that took a critical look at the adult film industry in her sociology course. Students alleged that Price had created a hostile environment, and App State found her guilty without affording her due process and ordered her to complete training on how to teach "sensitive topics."
  • Professor Suzanne Sisley worked for years to obtain the necessary governmental approval for her study on the therapeutic effects of marijuana, to be conducted at the University of Arizona, where she had worked since 2007. In June 2014, however, the university abruptly terminated her employment amidst accusations that she supported a recall petition against a senator who had blocked state funding for her study. Arizona lawmakers wrote to UA to express concern that Sisley's termination appeared to be politically motivated and to note the severe chilling effect this could have on future research.
  • This summer, University of North Carolina at Wilmington Professor Mike Adams finally reached the end of his seven-year federal lawsuit alleging that UNC Wilmington denied him a promotion because of conservative political viewpoints he had expressed in non-university publications. The university was ultimately ordered to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in attorneys' fees and back pay. Adams created positive First Amendment precedent in the Fourth Circuit for everyone, regardless of views, but this legal battle demonstrates the extreme lengths to which professors sometimes must go simply to defend their right to free speech.
  • Salaita's case is worrying on its own--and even more so when considered as part of this pattern. These examples illustrate that the threat to faculty rights is widespread, and that professors from across the political spectrum are being punished for expressing themselves on a range of topics.

    Colleges and universities must realize that professors can help students explore new ideas only when they can be sure that they won't be disciplined for doing so. As the Supreme Court wrote in it's 1957's decision of Sweezy v. New Hampshire: "Scholarship cannot flourish in an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust. Teachers and students must always remain free to inquire, to study and to evaluate, to gain new maturity and understanding; otherwise our civilization will stagnate and die."