Public Versus Private Speech On and Off Campus: Can a Professor Be Fired for Espousing Extreme Views?
The Academic Freedom Alliance recently released a guidance statement regarding campus protests over the Israeli-Gaza war. It’s a stirring call for a recommitment to basic principles of free speech at colleges and universities. It’s also a reminder to differentiate between private speech by professors in their personal capacities versus efforts by some to politicize the classroom.
Reposted in full by the Volokh Conspiracy blog, the statement reads (in part):
“Professors must enjoy the liberty to discuss and even promote controversial ideas and to present controversial materials to students in their classes. Professors have an obligation, however, not to take advantage of their captive audience of students by introducing ideas or materials that are not germane to the subject matter of their class. Likewise, professors have a responsibility not to exploit their privileged position to attempt to indoctrinate students or to subject them to political or ideological litmus tests or pressures in their classroom assignments. Nor do professors have a right to compromise the education of their students by conducting their classes in a manner designed simply to advance their favored political causes. Universities must resist calls to censor what is taught in classrooms, but they must also ensure that classes are used for proper educational purposes.
“Professors, like other members of the campus community, should enjoy the freedom to speak and act as citizens. When speaking in public in their personal capacity, professors may give voice to controversial and even extreme political and social opinions that others might find offensive or disturbing. When professors at American universities speak in public in a manner that is lawful under the First Amendment, universities should stand behind their right to express such views. Universities should insist that professors, as well as other members of the campus community, adhere to content-neutral regulations regarding the time, place, and manner of public speech on campus, but universities must strive to apply those rules in an even-handed and consistent manner regardless of the substantive views of those expressing themselves. Universities should refrain from punishing members of the faculty simply because some think their private political speech is intemperate, uncivil, dishonest, or disrespectful. Professors should be judged and held accountable for their professional speech and conduct, not for their political views.”
It's hard to disagree with such a cogent defense of free expression on campus, which indeed is the place where difficult subjects should be respectfully discussed and debated. But we do.
We agree that it is important, as the statement points out, to consider the fora when adjudicating the appropriateness of speech content by professors. On the other hand, we must recognize that many American colleges and universities are private institutions with their own speech rights. Unless they are substantially funded by the public, schools are perfectly justified in reacting reasonably to the speech of their employees.
Case in point: When Cornell University history professor Russell Rickford told a group of pro-Palestinian demonstrators that he was “exhilarated” by the Oct. 7 attacks against Israel, he faced criticism from the administration, a petition drive to fire him, and demands from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) for his termination. Instead, Rickford received permission to take a leave of absence. But make no mistake, Cornell would have been well within its rights to have fired Rickford.
There will always be a tension between the personal speech rights of a professor and the right of free association at a public university. Given the different status of public and private universities, it is impossible to describe a neat methodology for dealing with incendiary speech – just as it is difficult to legislate academic outcomes.
Consider Florida’s attempt to implement the Stop WOKE Act, which sought to ban schools and companies from promoting ideas of race- or sex-based blame to “privileged” students and employees. To be fair, there is no lack of idiotic ideology on campus and in the corporation. But that law, had it gone into effect, would have significantly chilled speech by professors within the classrooms, creating fear among anyone that so much as touched on race in the course of a lesson plan.
In enjoining the Stop WOKE Act, Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker called it outright Orwellian, noting that the law “officially bans professors from expressing disfavored viewpoints in university classrooms while permitting unfettered expression of the opposite viewpoints.” The law remains blocked as of this writing. It is critical that we have such baseline principles for the preservation of free inquiry and academic debate on campus.
What such principles won’t do is negate the free speech and associational rights of private institutions. Nor will they inoculate a public university against the invisible hand of the higher education marketplace, which may well withdraw donor support and student applications because of vitriolic commentary, even when professors speak in a private capacity.
In the private sector, employers can hold employees responsible for what they say. Yes, they can fire them for it. And that’s okay.