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.
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."