We just discussed the free speech and academic freedom issues of schools investigating professors for their postings on social media. Now we have A New Jersey college professor who was fired by Essex County College after appearing on “Tucker Carlson Tonight.” Professor Lisa Durden staunchly defended a black-only Black Lives Matter event and caused an uproar of criticism over her highly insulting comments about “white people.”
Durden taught communications and pop culture classes as an adjunct professor and agreed to appear on the June 6th show. Durden came out swinging in the interview and mocked the very notion that whites could object to be excluded from a Black Lives Matter event. Her response to a basic question about racial discrimination was “Listen. What I say to that is boo-hoo-hoo. You white people are angry because you couldn’t use your ‘white privilege’ card to get invited to the Black Lives Matter’s all-black Memorial Day celebration! Wow!”
Durden proceeds to give a rather rambling diatribe in response to the questions. I found her appearance highly disturbing and offensive. However, she was introduced as a BLM supporter and a political commentator. She was not referencing a matter at the college and did not suggest that she was speaking for the college in any way.
College president Anthony Munroe acknowledged that he got a lot of heat about the interview “expressing frustration, concern and even fear that the views expressed by a college employee with influence over students would negatively impact their experience on the campus.” While Durden did not associate herself or her comments with the college Munroe insisted that it did not matter: “her employment with us and potential impact on students required our immediate review into what seemed to have become a very contentious and divisive issue.”
In response to the action, Durden exhibited the same over-heated rhetoric and claimed that she had been “publicly lynched” by the school. She added “I thought it would be a safe place for me. I thought when I came home from war, I would be safe.”
It is often hard to defend free speech when the speaker is displaying hateful or racist sentiments. However, Durden was engaging in the public debate over racial exclusions and raising provocative ideas about race. There was no evidence that she had allowed these sentiments to impact or affect her teaching at the college. As much as I disagree with her views, I do not see how her statements outside of the college should be grounds for termination. Indeed, there is no clear standard for what statements will deemed termination grounds. Instead, it seems like the college is using a “we know it when we see it” approach. That creates an obvious chilling effect on academics who want to participate in the public dialogue over issues like race.
What do you think?