Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education


Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education


Article excerpt

Growing in popularity among students and scholars, blogs are raising issues regarding free speech for university administrations

For a year and a half. Meg Spohn served as an adjunct faculty member at DeVry University's Westminster, CoIo., campus. A well-liked instructor, her engaging teaching style landed her the position as department chair of communications and composition. But one month after her promotion, she was fired for content posted on her personal blog.

Spohn says she was never told what content was objectionable, never informed of guidelines regarding faculty/staff blogging and never given the opportunity to remove the content in question from her blog. She was told only that the academic dean and the human resources department were aware of her blog and that she was being fired. DeVry officials did not return calls seeking comment.

"How I 'denigrated' them is a mystery to me. and I never said anything negative about the students." says Spohn, currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Denver. She says she made the circumstances surrounding her firing public because she says few employers have guidelines about blogging, and many employees have some sort of Internet presence.

The explosion in blogs, or "Web logs," has generated a new wrinkle in an old free speech argument. Are colleges and universities developing and adequately explaining their policies on blogging? Do faculty have free speech rights when it comes to off-campus expression on blogs, even if the postings are critical of the school?

Constitutional First Amendment protections do not extend to private employers or institutions like DeVry, where there is no "state action." And Colorado, where Spohn was employed, has at-will employment laws, meaning an employer can dismiss an employee for essentially any reason other than those protected under anti-discrimination laws, specifically, race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, gender and disability.

Jonathan Knight, director of the academic freedom and tenure program at the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), weighed in on, a blog for attorneys and law firms. Knight says that although the AAUP does not have a policy or specific guideline about blogging, blog postings "fall within the same category of speech as op-ed pieces and other public commentary." He also asserts "faculty have the right to express themselves vigorously and freely," including on subjects regarding university policy and leadership.

Eugene Volokh, the Gary T. Schwartz Professor of Law at the University of California, Los Angeles, agrees with the AAUP, but takes it a step further.

"I think that colleges and universities that see themselves as places for scholarship have a professional responsibility to protect their faculty members' academic freedom. Of course public colleges and universities also have a constitutional responsibility to do this because they're bound by the First Amendment," Volokh says. "This academic freedom should include public commentary even when it's written from one's office, during the work day, and in one's Official capacity' as a professor. Professors write most of their articles, op-eds, blog posts and the like while 'on the job,' because public speech is part of their job.

"Academic freedom should likewise include even public commentary that some may deride as 'hate speech.'" Volokh says. "Ideas, even offensive ones, about religion, sex, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity and the like are important parts of academic debate and public debate.

"On the other hand," he adds, "trade schools that see themselves, and describe themselves to the outside world as simply places in which people teach an existing stock of ideas to their students, and that aren't supposed to engage in scholarship that advances our storehouse of ideas, might reasonably say that they aren't covered by academic freedom principles because they aren't really academic (in the sense of being devoted to scholarship as well as teaching) institutions. …

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