Tuesday, December 16, 2014

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.