Professors Are Losing Their Freedom of Expression It's Not Just Speakers at Universities Who Are Being Banned and Silenced, It's Faculty Members and Students, Too, Lament Professors Howard Gillman and Erwin Chermerinsky

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), November 19, 2017 | Go to article overview

Professors Are Losing Their Freedom of Expression It's Not Just Speakers at Universities Who Are Being Banned and Silenced, It's Faculty Members and Students, Too, Lament Professors Howard Gillman and Erwin Chermerinsky


With so much attention focused on whether controversial speakers such as Milo Yiannapoulos or Richard Spencer should be allowed to appear on campus, an even more basic issue has been obscured: Universities are punishing faculty who, outside of professional settings, express views that are considered controversial or even offensive.

There are many recent examples of this. A year ago, a University of Oregon law professor was suspended for wearing blackface at a Halloween party held at her house. Twenty-three law school faculty members wrote a letter urging the professor to resign. A campus investigation found that by wearing this costume at a party in her home she had engaged in "discriminatory harassment."

A few years ago, the University of Illinois rescinded an offer to professor Steven Salaita for his anti-Israel tweets. (Ultimately, a court upheld Mr. Salaita's First Amendment claims and the university settledhis lawsuit.)

And when George Ciccariello-Maher, associate professor of politics and global studies at Drexel University,tweeted last December, "All I want for Christmas is white genocide," there was pressure to fire him. The university resisted.

After some tweets about white male entitlement following the Las Vegas mass shooting, the Daily Caller called his remarks "absolutely unforgiveable" (sic) and the conservative rage machine unleashed a barrage of hate mail and death threats. The university placed him on administrative leave, expressing concern for his safety and the safety of the Drexel community.

In responding to those who would silence or censor speakers, many people, especially on the right, argue that, at universities, all ideas should be expressible, and if someone doesn't like particular ideas, the response should be to engage and rebut the speakers rather than harass them or shout them down. These same sentiments should apply when faculty members express controversial opinions.

Vital for the rise of modern American colleges and universities has been the development of "academic freedom" protections for faculty. When college administrators were empowered to fire faculty who held controversial opinions, American higher education was an entirely close-minded arena for indoctrination into accepted opinion rather than a place where all ideas could be put to the test and where it was acceptable, even desirable, to challenge prevailing wisdom.

It took a long time for the idea of academic freedom to gain a foothold. For decades after the publication of Darwin's "On the Origin of Species," many college and university leaders prohibited the teaching of evolution.

In 1900, when Stanford professor Edward Ross was judged to be unacceptably radical because of his support for unions and the "free silver" movement, university co-founder Jane Stanford forced his firing. …

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