Academic Freedom and Repellent Speech

What are professors allowed to say? Where are we are allowed to say it?

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 that impassioned 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.

So do we have to stand on principle in defense of O’Connor, if, indeed, she asks for it? I’d really rather not. I’m pleased to see a bigot drop out of the profession. I am, however, concerned that there are dangers to academic freedom in allowing this story to slide away. In a case like O’Connor’s, we need to require a faculty-involved due process that must demonstrate a link between uncivil speech and one’s professional obligations. Moreover, as FSU weighs its reaction to the O’Connor resignation, we must protect the ability of faculty to be uncivil in public, no matter how uncomfortable that makes us.

Is it fair to compare O’Connor to Salaita? For defenders of Salaita, his public statements were not examples of Internet bigotry but principled and provocative positions. He engaged in debate with people who responded. He never got personal about individuals with whom he was speaking. For defenders, his tweets are nothing like the ranting, misspelled, crude homophobia, Islamophobia, and racism of Deborah O’Connor. But for Salaita’s detractors, the literature professor came across as a bigot. We cannot allow academic freedom to depend on how a particular set of speech makes us feel, as this is too subjective. Instead, we need due process.

Unlike Salaita, O’Connor voluntarily terminated her employment. She was, however, pressured to resign, and her letter of resignation suggests that she felt trapped. O’Connor wrote, “It hurts me deeply that I was not given a fair hearing in front of administration reps, but I sense that ‘the path of least resistance’ is for me to resign to forestall a litigation, although I must emphasize that I do NOT believe the punishment fits the ‘crime.’”

A representative of Florida State’s HR department told me over email that O’Connor was on “a fixed-term multi-year contract. Her appointment had a term of four (4) years, with a requirement of a two (2) year notice for non-reappointment.” That means she was not an at-will employee, nor was she as secure as a tenured professor. As a lecturer, being encouraged to resign may not be legally the same as being fired, but it does indicate that one’s duration as an employee will soon come to an end.

According to her own letter, she does not seem to have been granted the kind of due process usually called for by advocates of academic freedom. Indeed, one of the most consistent criticisms of the University of Illinois was that even if one believed that Salaita’s tweets constituted grounds for rescinding his job offer, he should have been allowed to respond to accusations as part of that process. I agree with that criticism. I wonder whether O’Connor was offered a process in the event she chose not to resign (FSU will not comment on personnel issues).

Which brings me back to my opening question. What are we allowed to say, in what spaces, and in what contexts? I have seen no evidence that O’Connor’s personal views affected her teaching. Can you be an effective teacher of business communications and believe it’s appropriate to use such personal, ad hominem, and deeply offensive speech? Maybe not. Still, the burden must be on FSU to show that such speech renders her unfit to be a college teacher.

The representative from Florida State told me that the university is considering instituting a social-media policy next year. I’m worried that administrators will take O’Connor’s conduct as a justification for telling professors that any subjectively offensive speech can cost them their jobs.

It’s possible that O’Connor was, in fact, unfit to be a professor. It’s possible that a social-media policy will enable FSU faculty members to feel confident wading into strident online debate, rather than forcing them to wall themselves off from the panopticon. Whatever happens, defenders of academic freedom need to pay attention to the O’Connor resignation and subsequent policies that emerge in Florida.

We discover the limitations of free speech, academic freedom, and civil liberties by wading in the muck of the margins.

David M. Perry is an associate professor of history at Dominican University. His blog is How Did We Get Into This Mess? He writes on occasion for The Chronicle and Vitae. Follow him on Twitter @lollardfish.

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