We have been discussing the concerns over free speech on our campuses, including the question of equal treatment given social postings by faculty in their private time. Douglas Muir, an adjunct professor at the University of Virginia’s Engineering School, has become the focus of these concerns after he took a leave of absence after he was criticized for calling Black Lives Matter as the biggest racist organization since the Ku Klux Klan. It was clearly an inflammatory statement and understandably viewed by many as insulting and ill-informed. However, there remain free speech concerns over when such statements have resulted in disciplinary actions for academics.
Muir wrote on Facebook “Black lives matter is the biggest rasist (sic) organisation (sic) since the clan (sic). Are you kidding me. Disgusting!!!”
That led to a condemnation from the Universities and calls for his termination.
This has renewed the debate over the impact of social media on academics and whether there is content-based approach to such controversies. It is in fact free speech and there are academic protections for unpopular speech. The college is right. However, there is a growing concern over the test being applied to academics based on the content of such speech. The controversy raises again the question of a double standard in controversies at the University of California and Boston University, where there have been criticism of a double standard, even in the face of criminal conduct. Recently, we discussed a case at the University of London involving Bahar Mustafa. We recently saw a student suspended for a joke on Yik Yak that was denounced as racist. Another student was fired for criticizing the Black Lives Matter movement.
Yet, critics have charged that countervailing comments have not resulted in the same levels of discipline or even outrage:
• At Dartmouth, Black Lives Matter protesters burst into the Baker-Berry Library and prevented students from studying or even leaving as some screamed racial epithets: “F–k you, you filthy white f–ks!” “F–k you and your comfort!” and “F–k you, you racist shits!” Vice Provost for Student Affairs Inge-Lise Ameer actually apologized to the protesters for all the negative comments directed at their conduct.
• A columnist at Berkeley wrote about “white devils,” students living off-campus at Claremont said they were looking for a roommate “of color,” and the University of Connecticut set up a living space designed to be supportive of black male students. Resident advisers at the State University of New York even created a course entitled “Stop White People,” and weren’t disciplined. Yet Rohini Sethi, Houston University’s student body vice president, was suspended for posting her view that “all lives matter” on social media. And Georgia Southern University student Emily Faz was the target of stalking and death threats after criticizing Black Lives Matter on Facebook; she had to take time off from her job to protect her co-workers.
• Tulane students tore down a “Trump wall” at a fraternity off campus without any sanction, but when someone wrote “Trump” on sidewalks in chalk, Emory issued a long letter commiserating with the students who were offended by the supposed intimidation.
• Boston University sociology professor Saida Grundy posted a series of racist screeds against white people but retained her job. Memphis professor Zandria Robinson was hired by Rhodes College after denouncing whites and insisting that “whiteness is most certainly and inevitably terror.” There is little doubt what would have happened to a professor who said the inverse of such statements about minorities.
I have tended to oppose discipline on both sides over social media postings. Thus, Joy Karega, an assistant professor of “rhetoric and composition” at Oberlin College posted bizarre claims on Facebook blaming Jews and Israel for 9/11 as well as ISIS. The college however decided that such postings are protected and it is correct in doing so.
Muir has been the subject of calls for his termination over a response to a Facebook post by a local real estate agent who attended a lecture by Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza and referred to BLM as “working for dignity for everyone.”.
The university responded to the calls for termination by denouncing Muir and clearly indicating that he was forced to take a leave:
“While free speech and open discussion are fundamental principles of our nation and the University, Mr. Muir’s comment was entirely inappropriate. UVA Engineering does not condone actions that undermine our values, dedication to diversity and educational mission. Our faculty and staff are responsible for upholding our values and demonstrating them to students and the community. Mr Muir has agreed to take leave and is preparing his own statement to the community.”
In the meantime, the mayor of Charlottesville, Wes Bellamy, has called on the public to boycott Muir’s “Bella’s” Italian restaurant that he runs with his wife, Valeria Bisenti.
Here Muir made a posting on his own Facebook account that he viewed BLM as itself racist and akin to the KKK. There is clearly ample reason to strongly object to that statement and that analogy. However, Muir was not advocating discrimination against students or questioning diversity or the education mission of the university. For faculty, the question remains where the line is drawn over the exercise of free speech, particularly on private social media accounts. If faculty members are to be fired or placed on leave for social media commentary, there should be a standard that not only respects free speech values and academic freedom but also maintains a clear line for equal treatment among academics.
What do you think?