In 2013, the University of Illinois offered a position to a professor of American Indian Studies. But before the UIUC Board was scheduled to approve the hire, he posted a series of tweets that were deemed anti-Semitic. After receiving hundreds of complaints, the university’s chancellor rescinded the offer.
Last year, a communications professor at Florida Atlantic University was fired after he published a blog post arguing that the Boston Marathon bombing was a “false flag” operation and that the Sandy Hook massacre was a hoax.
Also in 2015, an incoming assistant professor at Boston University tweeted: “Why is white America so reluctant to identify white college males as a problem population?” The tweet created a national firestorm. BU’s president released a statement denouncing the content of the tweets, but affirming the professor’s right to express a personal opinion. BU’s job offer was not rescinded.
Why Is It So Hard To Define Academic Freedom?
These incidents, along with many more, reflect the difficulty universities have regulating the political speech of professors—especially when that speech is off-campus, not related to their scholarship, or published on social media. College professors do have speech protections that many others do not. But those protections are difficult to understand, and covered by conflicting standards.
The concept of academic freedom was enshrined on campuses by the American Association of University Professors, created to provide protection and redress for faculty who claimed their rights had been violated. However, the AAUP’s guidance in this area has been contradictory. This is especially true in matters regarding professor speech outside the classroom, which the AAUP refers to as “extramural utterances.” The AAUP’s 1940 “Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure” and the 1970 “Interpretive Comments” contain conflicting positions as to what protections and duties professors possess.
With regards to professors speaking as private citizens, the 1940 “Statement” argues that the professor’s unique position in the community imposes special obligations—including the need to be accurate, to show restraint, and to respect other opinions. The 1970 “Comments,” however, creates an additional, hard-to-satisfy standard for judging whether such speech impacts a faculty member’s fitness for employment. This newer standard gobbles up the obligations in the 1940 “Statement.”
What Academic Freedom Looked Like In 1940
In 1940, the AAUP agreed to a restatement of their original principles of academic freedom. The 1940 “Statement” has formed the basis of the national understanding of the topic ever since. It provides a working definition of academic freedom. According to the AAUP, the three core components of academic freedom are: 1) Teachers are entitled to full freedom in research and the publication of their results; 2) Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom, but should be careful not to introduce controversial material that has no relation to their subject; and 3) When teachers speak or write as private citizens, they a) should be accurate at all times; b) should exercise appropriate restraint; c) should show respect for the opinions of others; and d) should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.
Importantly, the 1940 “Statement,” while affirming the protection of free expression for professors’ speech outside of campus, emphasizes the correlative “special obligations” on professors towards the public and their institution.
The 1970 “Comments” sought to expand upon the 1940 principles and clarify some of its limitations. The AAUP stated that the controlling principle of “extramural utterances” is that a faculty member’s expression of opinion as a citizen cannot constitute grounds for dismissal unless it is “clearly demonstrated” that the faculty member is unfit for the position. This new standard appeared nowhere in the original 1940 document. The interpretation adds that extramural utterances “rarely bear upon the faculty member’s fitness for the position.”
The 1970 document concludes that any final decision to remove a professor for extramural speech should not be based on concurrent responsibilities or obligations, but on the entire record of the professor as a teacher and a scholar.
How The Standards Changed In 1970
The conflicting arguments in the 1940 “Statement” and the 1970 “Comments” have led to a confusing interpretation of faculty speech protections. While the “Statement” instructs faculty to be mindful in their extramural speech, and creates standards that faculty need to observe when speaking outside the classroom, the “Comments” argue that outside speech rarely bares on a faculty member’s fitness—and even when it does, the totality of the professor’s teaching and scholarship should be taken into account.
In addition, outside speech can only be punished when it is clearly demonstrated that the speech has affected the member’s fitness. This is a high burden of proof for any administration to meet. For example, if a college finds that there was no clear demonstration that a professor’s hateful, but extramural, speech impacted their fitness, and they are otherwise a talented teacher and scholar, the college must ignore the professor’s odious expression.
In addition to this hard-to-satisfy standard, the “Comments” de-emphasized the critical component of the “Statement”: duties balanced with rights and privileges. This is the critical component of the 1940 document and what provides the justification for the extension of academic freedom to forums outside the classroom. Professors get extra speech protection than other occupations, because they agree to be accurate, show restraint, remain respectful, and not speak on behalf of their institution. The “Comments” break that agreement. As a result, the “Comments” swallow up the “Statement”’s core principle of balancing rights and responsibilities and trade it for near-unregulated faculty speech.
The Case of Joy Karega and Oberlin College
The AAUP’s conflicting guidance leads up to events at Oberlin College occurring over the last year. Joy Karega, formerly an assistant professor of rhetoric and composition at Oberlin, was fired last month after an investigation into her anti-Semitic statements on social media. Her case is a perfect example of the disconnect created by the AAUP’s competing standards. If held to the 1970 “Comments” standard, she should not have been fired. But the outcome would be different when applying the 1940 “Statement” standard.
After arriving at Oberlin, Karega posted politically charged comments, imagery, and links to her personal Facebook page. These posts included statements that ISIS is actually a U.S. and Israeli intelligence operation and that they, not terrorists, planned the attacks on the offices of Charlie Hebdo. She also wrote that Israel had shot down the Malaysian Airline flight over Ukraine and voiced support for Louis Farrakhan’s statement that Zionists and Israeli Jews were responsible for 9/11. In addition, Karega posted anti-Semitic images, including a picture of Jacob Rothschild with the words: “We own your news, the media, your oil and your government.”
In February of this year, Oberlin released a statement respecting “the rights of its faculty, students, staff, and alumni to express their personal views.” Oberlin’s president, Marvin Krislov, released a statement saying that he was deeply hurt by the statements, but, as an academic, he deeply believed in free expression. Nonetheless, Oberlin’s Board of Trustees announced it had requested that the college look into Karega’s professional fitness. In April, a majority of Oberlin’s faculty signed a statement condemning Karega’s posts. Some professors and students, however, expressed support for Karega, arguing that she was being unfairly scapegoated for problems with racism and anti-Semitism on campus. In August, Karega was placed on paid leave pending an investigation into her conduct.
Oberlin Set An Example Other Colleges Should Follow
Last month, the results of the investigation were published. In a November 16 statement, the Board concluded that Karega was fired for “failing to meet the academic standards” at Oberlin and for “failing to demonstrate intellectual honesty.” While affirmed the college’s historic and ongoing commitment to academic freedom, the Board found that she attacked her colleagues when she was challenged, and that she violated the fundamental responsibilities of Oberlin faculty members to “accept the obligation to exercise critical self-discipline and judgment in using, extending and transmitting knowledge.”
In addition, the Board agreed with Oberlin’s General Faculty Council in their finding that her posts “could not be justified as part of her scholarship” and that they had “irreparably impaired (her) ability to perform her duties as a scholar, a teacher, and a member of the community.” Karega has responded that she believes that Board members and faculty prejudged her before the review process began, and that she intends to a file suit against Oberlin and a complaint with the EEOC.
Since the 1940 “Statement” does a better job of balancing the rights and privileges of professors’ speech with the associated responsibilities, Oberlin did well to adhere to the standards set by the 1940 “Statement.” When speaking as private citizens, professors should recognize that they have a responsibility to respect other opinions, to show essential restraint, and to be accurate in their statements. Other colleges and universities faced with these controversies in the future would do well to follow Oberlin’s example.
Will This Decision Threaten Conservative Professors?
Recently, Jonathan Marks of Ursinus College wrote a piece for Commentary regarding the Karega firing. Marks concludes that, while the case for firing Karega may be strong, if Oberlin fired her for her loathsome opinions, they made a mistake.“We should be very reluctant to fire teachers over offenses that have not somehow manifested themselves in scholarship, teaching, or service, or that do not directly implicate their fitness,” he argues Marks suggests that firing professors like Karega would, given the present politics of universities, lead to a slippery slope of catching moderate conservative professors in the dragnet of rooting out speech despised by the majority of the academic community.
Marks’ conclusion is accurate only when the Karega controversy is interpreted through the lens of the 1970 “Comments.” Marks states that Karega’s comments did not directly concern the subject she teaches and, therefore, her fitness to teach English composition courses was not impaired. In fact, he allows that if Karega was a historian, the case for firing her would be stronger because it would have been within her area of expertise.
However, Marks’ argument ignores the duties that the 1940 “Statement” imposes. When judged against the “Statement,” it becomes clear that Oberlin made the right choice. Karega’s posts were not accurate “at all times.” Nor did she show respect for the opinions of her colleagues when she was asked to explain her posts. Karega did not exercise the appropriate restraint required, nor is it clear that she made every effort to indicate that she was not speaking as a member of the institution.
The Privilege Of Academic Freedom Comes With Responsibility
While I am sensitive to Marks’ slippery slope warning, Oberlin was justified in firing Joy Karega. The privileges professors enjoy with academic freedom come with the accompanying responsibilities of holding a special position in society. Karega did not meet those responsibilities. Oberlin did the right thing by eschewing the 1970 standard in favor of a grounded interpretation of the balances necessary for academic freedom to flourish as outlined in the 1940 “Statement.”
Other colleges should recognize Oberlin’s stand in favor of this proper understanding of the rights, privileges, and duties associated with academic freedom. Professors would do well to acknowledge that the privileges of academic freedom they enjoy do not grant them unregulated speech protections, but instead are combined with the duties to be accurate, respectful, and restrained.
The author’s students, Cheryl Doyle, Lissette Barcenas, and Mark Narancich, contributed to this article. The statements above do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the author’s employer.