Teacher talk: Professors' fight to speak openly often isn't easy

Having accepted a tenured professorship at the University of Illinois, Steven Salaita resigned from his job at Virginia Tech and was ready to go to the public institution’s Urbana-Champaign campus — until university officials rescinded their offer about three weeks before classes started.

A month before his termination, Salaita, a Palestinian-American, posted a series of impassioned and controversial tweets criticizing Israel’s president and the country’s actions in Gaza.

“#Israel has even bombed a few cemeteries. You know, just to make sure the “terrorists” are really dead. #Gaza #GazaUnderAttack,” Salaita said in one of his tweets.

Salaita’s tweets led to his termination in Illinois, which he claims is a violation of his First Amendment rights, according to a lawsuit he filed in federal court in January.

The Kansas Board of Regents, in the wake of a University of Kansas professor’s controversial tweet about the Washington, D.C., Navy Yard Shooting in 2013, passed a policy that allows it to punish professors for their online speech. In Wisconsin, a professor at Marquette University was fired in February for criticizing a teaching assistant on his blog.

Anita Levy, a senior program officer for the American Association of University Professors, a trade organization based in Washington, D.C., representing professors and researchers, said restrictions on professors’ speech are becoming more common. These actions, she said, are an affront to their academic freedom.

According to the AAUP’s Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, academic freedom is based on the idea that professors are free to engage in research and publication, classroom discussion and speak as individual citizens without fear of facing institutional censorship or discipline.

Currently, 53 universities have policies that do not meet the AAUP’s standards for academic freedom, Levy said, which the nonprofit organization argues is necessary for faculty at universities to teach and conduct research freely. Northeastern Illinois University was added to the list in 2014 when the university president denied tenure to a professor, despite favorable recommendations, because he did not file a plan to improve his advising and failed to improve to her satisfaction his “cooperation with colleagues and peers”. National Louis University was added to the list in 2013 when it violated the AAUP’s standards for academic freedom and tenure in discontinuing fourteen degree and certificate programs and four departments and terminating more than 60 faculty members.

“Academic freedom is just one way of characterizing the concept of being able to engage in critical thinking, to engage in evidence-based thinking,” said Mark Peterson, a political science professor at Washburn University. Attempts to limit professors’ academic freedom, he said, undermine “the ability of any society or social organization to stay in touch with reality and keep following a path of improvement and progress.”

Restrictions to online speech

The AAUP launched an investigation on the University of Illinois after the institution denied Salaita his professorship. Levy said the investigation involved AAUP staff going to the campus and interviewing university administrators.

Based on its findings, released in April, the association says Salaita’s termination violated its standards for academic freedom and tenure. The university, the report said, failed to show good cause for rejecting Salaita’s appointment and “cast a pall of uncertainty over the degree to which academic freedom is understood and respected.”

In January, Salaita filed a First Amendment lawsuit in federal court against university officials, the Board of Trustees and anonymous donors, claiming the University of Illinois discriminated against his views and opinions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict when they denied him the opportunity to take up his post in the American Indian Studies department.

In February, the University of Illinois filed a motion to dismiss the case. [Update: In August, a federal judge rejected the university’s attempt to throw out Salaita’s lawsuit.]

The State of Kansas is “in a free speech crisis,” said Max McCoy, a journalism professor at Emporia State University. In December 2013, the Kansas Board of Regents created a social media policy which could result in a professor’s termination for their online speech.

“There really is a systematic attempt to stifle free speech in Kansas,” McCoy said. “Particularly academic speech.”

The Kansas Board of Regents’ social media policy calls for universities to create rules regarding the responsible use of social media by professors, allowing university presidents to discipline professors with “suspension, dismissal and termination” for “improper use of social media.”

McCoy said the policy came in response to University of Kansas professor David Guth’s tweet directed at the National Rifle Association after the Washington, D.C., Navy Yard shootings in September 2013.

“#NavyYardShooting The blood is on the hands of the #NRA,” Guth tweeted. “Next time let it be YOUR sons and daughters. Shame on you. May God damn you.”

Michael Smith, a political science professor at Emporia State University, said he found the social media policy worrisome because it could lead to professors losing their jobs for what would otherwise be protected speech.

“Certainly we can all agree that if someone posts confidential data about a student on social media, that that is very wrong and while the first resort shouldn’t be to fire the person, certainly there should be some sort of procedure there,” Smith said. “But on the other hand, if you’re just stating political opinions, we of course think that that is protected under academic freedom.”

In November 2014, John McAdams, a political science professor at Marquette University, wrote a blog post criticizing a graduate student instructor of a philosophy course because she allegedly stopped a debate on same-sex marriage, saying she would not allow homophobic opinions to be voiced in her class.

In January, McAdams received notice that he had been summarily suspended and that the university began the process to remove his tenure and dismiss him, claiming his post was “incompetent, inaccurate and lacking integrity,” according to a Marquette dean’s email to McAdams.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the AAUP have called for McAdams’ reinstatement, arguing the university’s actions violate the principles of academic freedom and tenure.

Other restrictions of academic freedom

Earlier this year, Kansas lawmakers proposed a rule that would put restrictions on college professors who write newspaper columns — not because they wanted a law. They wanted to send a message.

The bill, which died in committee, would have required universities to have policies restricting professors’ use of university titles on columns they wrote about state politics for newspapers.

“That was a very, very odd bill,” Smith said. “For one thing, no one would take ownership for sponsoring it, even the people the people that were widely believed to be the initiators. For another thing, the bill was strangely written in such a way that it was specific to newspaper columns so, for example, it wouldn’t apply to television appearances or radio appearances.”

Just by introducing it, the bill creates the potential for “a chilling effect on academic freedom,” said Bob Beatty, a political science professor at Washburn University, located in Topeka, Kan. A professor’s university title gives a sense of legitimacy to a newspaper column. If this legislation had passed, Beatty said it would have put the credibility of professors’ newspaper columns in question.

But attacks on academic freedom aren’t limited to restrictions to professors’ personal speech.

At Northern Michigan University, the student newspaper adviser was ousted in what she perceived as retaliation for her students’ investigative stories, many of which were critical of the university administration.

Cheryl Reed, The North Wind’s adviser, filed a federal lawsuit in April against members of the student newspaper’s Board of Directors. Reed claims the board violated her First Amendment rights when they voted against her reappointment.

According to the complaint, the board’s vote violated Reed’s right to freely teach student reporters about investigative journalism without fear of retribution. 

[Update: In July, Reed voluntarily gave up her lawsuit, after the judge denied her request for a preliminary injunction that would have kept her as the paper’s adviser as the lawsuit progressed.]

Three journalism associations — Society of Professional Journalists, Associated Collegiate Press and College Media Association — have come to Reed’s defense arguing that the board’s actions were an affront to the First Amendment.

Protecting an image

While free speech protections for college professors seem like an easy sell for many in academe, it’s not always so easy for college administrators.

Dan King, the president of the American Association of University Administrators, a non-profit professional organization that represents university administrators, said policies restricting academic freedom have a long-standing history.

“We always want to ask people to be clear that whenever they’re taking a position — whether it’s controversial or not — that they make it clear to people that that position is their personal position that they’re not speaking on behalf of a college or university,” King said. “One way to do that is to encourage people not to use their titles unless it’s absolutely appropriate.”

Peterson, a professor at Washburn, said he feels for the administrator who has to go to legislators and answer for a professor’s unpopular speech.

“Administrators worry about the bottom line,” Peterson said. “Is that guy in the appropriations committee going to submit an amendment to cut our funding because he’s decided that he’s experienced too much heartburn at the hands of that guy who’s in our political science department?”

Peterson said he avoids using his university title when he writes a newspaper column.

“If you can make your point and not wind up antagonizing the bull, why not take the path that’s more prudent?” Peterson said.

King said policies restricting social media speech are reactionary policies because social media is still new.

“I think it’s not the best administrative or managerial approach to have these specific extreme limitations but it’s understandable because social media is so new and people are frankly a bit scared of it,” King said.

Why protect academic freedom?

Anita Levy, of the AAUP, said professors should have the right to speak, teach and research without fear of retribution.

“If we don’t protect academic freedom, then faculty members will be looking over their shoulders fearful that if they say something that the administration doesn’t like, or the legislature doesn’t like or some big donor doesn’t like, then they’ll be fired,” Levy said.

McCoy said college campuses are essential to the marketplace of ideas and restricting professors’ speech “hurts the university system as a whole.”

“There should be free and unfettered discourse about matters of public interest,” McCoy said. “No matter who you are, no matter what side of the political spectrum you’re on, you are enriched by having a diversity of opinions available to you.”

Similarly, Smith said a professor’s job is to put new ideas that are being overlooked on the public agenda.

“If you shut us down or have a chilling effect, you’re going to limit your range of political debate because sometimes we can see issues out there that aren’t being debated, aren’t being discussed, aren’t in the news media and we can put them on the public agenda,” Smith said.