September 28, 2015

Most academics are familiar with one or more well-­publicized incidents in which professors were suspended, were fired, or had a hiring contract rescinded because of controversial statements they had made on social media. That common denominator should give pause to all academics who value their jobs.

Steven Salaita, a tenured associate professor of English at Virginia Tech, was preparing to change jobs and move to the University of Illinois at Urbana-­Champaign. His contract had been negotiated, and his appointment was all but assured, though it had not been approved by the Board of Trustees, when he tweeted scathingly critical comments about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. When the offending tweets came to the attention of faculty members, administrators, and, perhaps most influentially, outraged donors, Salaita’s job offer was rescinded, his contract canceled.

In the case of Rick Coupland, a full-time business professor at St. Lawrence College, in Ontario, a former student of his tweeted a video from Coupland’s Facebook page showing a rainbow flag being raised in St. Petersburg, Fla., with Coupland’s comment, "It’s the queers that should be hanging, not the flag," and specifically asked what the college’s response would be. It fired Coupland on July 21.

John McAdams’s story is more intricate. Last fall Cheryl Abbate, a graduate student teaching a course on ethics at Marquette University, was approached after class by a student who expressed disappointment that he had not been allowed to express his opinion of gay marriage. In the ensuing conversation, which the student was taping on his cellphone, Abbate told the student that expressing racist, sexist, or homophobic comments would not be tolerated in her classroom and that if he was unhappy with her policy he could drop the course.

McAdams, a tenured political-­science professor at Marquette, acquired a copy of the recording from the student and wrote about the incident on his personal blog, castigating Abbate for restricting the student’s right to free speech. The blog post was circulated by several conservative political organizations, including the Westboro Baptist Church, which picketed the university. McAdams was relieved of his teaching and other university duties pending Marquette’s review of his conduct.

The originators of the concept of academic freedom could not have imagined Facebook, Twitter, or personal blogs. Yet clearly the time has come to recognize the impact of social media on academic freedom — and the bottom line seems to be that it has created an environment in which it is increasingly difficult to differentiate private communication from public speech and to parse how that increasingly blurred line affects a professor’s protection under academic freedom. Those cases, which are far from simple, underscore the fact that professors’ audiences now extend far beyond those who attend lectures and read scholarly articles.

Aside from the once-­unthinkable notion that a student could secretly record an argument with a teaching assistant using a smartphone, McAdams’s blog post poses crucial questions: Is a personal blog public or private? To what extent are the content of the post, and the identity and affiliation of its author important factors?

And what of Facebook? Even if Coupland’s privacy settings were set to "friends only," his offensive post was potentially available to anyone with whom any of his Facebook friends wished to share it. And, of course, what’s the point of having a Facebook account if you don’t have friends?

Twitter can be even more public than Facebook: One gets a Twitter account solely for the purpose of amplifying one’s online presence. Salaita has thousands of Twitter followers, any one of whom could have taken offense at what he wrote and recirculated it.

The courts may ultimately decide these cases, but as things stand now I think they illustrate that academic freedom is in danger of becoming a hollow concept as academics are increasingly active, if naïve, users of social media.

Even given the high cost to colleges of trying to remove a tenured professor, tenure obviously doesn’t provide adequate protection. What’s more, a smaller and smaller proportion of the higher-education teaching work force has tenure or is eligible for it; removing the tenure-ineligible is as simple as not renewing their contracts.

That demographic development, combined with the impossibility of containing social media, means that all academics must exercise extreme caution.

Frank Donoghue is a professor of English at Ohio State University.