Me and Voldemort (Why Academic Freedom in Extramural Utterances Matters)

I had a new piece at the Chronicle yesterday about offensive speech and academic freedom. Deborah O’Connor, a Florida State lecturer, resigned after saying some really nasty things on a public Facebook page. In my piece, I compare her speech to the un-hiring of Steven Salaita, a case on which I’ve written a lot over the last few months.

Here’s a passage I had to cut from the essay (as it veered off the main thread), but that I think helps raise the stakes, in the sense that we are all at risk:

I used to hang out on a Facebook page filled with
interesting people from diverse political perspectives. We’d debate issues,
disagree, and kept it all pretty civil. But then Voldemort, my nickname for a
fanatical right-wing historian, would show up and start baiting me. I was, at
the time, easily baited. Again and again, I would find myself writing profane
responses, my temper flaring, my fingers slamming down on the keys. I never sent
them, at least not the worst ones. I never told him to “Fuck off and die.” I
never called him any offensive epithets. 
But I was close, too close, too often. Eventually, I had to cut myself
off from that community, just because I spent too much of my day being angry.
Had I lost my temper, what implications should that have for
my job? Voldemort could have screen-captured my comments and sent them to my
university or to the press. The right-wing blogosphere is always eager for
example of left-wing misconduct and angry or violent rhetoric. It could easily
have become an issue.

In the essay, I write:

Last week Deborah O’Connor, a senior lecturer at Florida State University, was pushed to resign after making racist and homophobic comments on a public Facebook page. She said some pretty horrible things, like blaming Europe’s troubles on “rodent Muslims.” She also told a well-known gay hairstylist to “Take your Northern fagoot [sic] elitism and shove it up your ass. ”

I am revolted by her remarks. However, I spent quite a lot of the fall arguing thatimpassioned political speech on a personal social-media account did not justify the “de-hiring” of Steven Salaita. As has been well reported, Salaita was hired for a tenured position at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign when stories about his angry tweets regarding the war in Gaza reached the trustees and chancellor of the university. They canceled his appointment. Every time I encountered someone justifying Salaita’s firing by emphasizing what they considered the gross anti-Semitism of his tweets, I responded with the following: If we do not stand on principle for people with whom we disagree, we have no principles.

I stand by that analysis.

So what is owed O’Connor? The key is to remember that the principles of academic freedom do not say that all speech is protected speech; rather, it argues that there are broad protections of most kinds of conduct. If an institution thinks someone has crossed those lines, then the burden is on the institution to follow (or at least explicitly offer) an appropriate due process, as outlined in the 1964 (rev 1989) AAUP Committee A Statement on Extramural Utterances.

This should really not be controversial, but it often becomes so when we are faced with someone saying or doing awful things.

I suspect O’Connor is not, in fact, able to teach without bias. But it’s possible, and I’d like the burden of proof to be on FSU to prove it.

3 Replies to “Me and Voldemort (Why Academic Freedom in Extramural Utterances Matters)”

  1. S.B. Stewart-Laing says:

    I am a bit torn on this one. On one hand, I'm with you 100% on the potential for major invasion of people's private lives. Who among us hasn't been baited into a virtual shouting match? (It's not like this is unique to the internet, but back in the old days there wasn't a blow-by-blow record of a loud argument you'd had with someone). And even if your behaviour is justified (I had a go at someone on my Facebook page a couple of weeks ago for acting out of line), it can sound quite bad out of context. If someone had a Facebook argument with their cousin over politics, that's not really their employer's business.
    On the other hand, I think there are a lot of situations where someone's attitudes are going to impair their ability to do their job. As an undergrad, I had some professors with open prejudices against various groups (for example, scholarship students) and personally I think our quality of education suffered because of this. Similarly, if someone is openly racist, sexist or otherwise bigoted is likely unable to deal fairly with members of the public if that is part of their job. So it would make sense for their employer to care about such things.

  2. David Perry says:

    It is a situation worth being torn about.

    I just keep falling back on due process, and faculty-involved due process at that. It's the best answer i can come up with.

  3. S.B. Stewart-Laing says:

    My previous job had what I think was a fair policy. It was a company that planned renewable energy sites to minimise environmental impacts, and as such it was written into our contracts that we should not discuss the details of specific projects without our supervisor's OK. We were also not supposed support anti-renewables groups, global warming denial, etc. for the obvious reason that this would discredit the company. But as far as our other opinions, we were free to express them, as long as we did it either on a FB profile set to private or with a social media handle that wasn't obviously our name (again, them not wanting clients to Google their employees and find a Facebook argument).

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