We have been discussing the disciplining of professors for their statements on social media and the concern that there are different standards being applied in such cases. As many of you know, I take a robust view of free speech rights and have been critical of the monitoring and punishment of teachers for expressing their political and social views outside of campus. The latest such controversy comes from Clemson University where Assistant Professor Bart Knijnenburg went on Facebook to call Trump supporters and Republicans generally “racist scum.”
Ironically, his bio page begins with discussing the difficult decisions raised by social media (which notably does not include refraining from calling millions of people scum):
Our online lives are full of small but difficult decisions. Which app should I install? Should I post this on Facebook or not? Which YouTube video should I watch? What will this e-commerce website do with my personal information? In my research I try to understand the psychological principles behind these online decisions. Using Big Data and Machine Learning principles, I try to make these decisions a little easier with better user interfaces and “smart defaults”.
CampusReform.org ran screen grabs from Twitter and Facebook from Knijnenburg, who teaches Human-Centered Computing. One Facebook entry from Aug. 16th asserting “All trump supporters, nay, all Republicans, are racist scum.” He later added “All republicans? Yes. Your complacency made this happen. Pick a side: denounce your affiliation, or admit you’re a racist.” When a commenter who is believed to be a student expressed his sadness at the remarks, Knijnenburg responded with “You should come live in the south for a while. It’s exhausting. The republican ideology of ‘everyone is equal and nobody deserves a handout’ is naive at best, covertly racist at worst. I truly believe that turning a blind eye makes you complicit in what is happening now.” Knijnenburg used the hashtag to say PunchNazis and how much he admires violence counterprotesters: “I admire anyone who stands up against white supremacy, Violent or non-violent. This needs to stop, by any means necessary. #PunchNazis”
The reference to admiring violence is enough to put anyone into hot water with a University Administration. The issue however remains what comments are subject to discipline and what comments are viewed as free speech.
As we have previously discussed (including the recent controversies involving an Oregon professor and a Drexel professor), there remains an uncertain line in what language is protected for teachers in their private lives. The incident also raises what some faculty have complained is a double or at least uncertain standard. We have previously discussed 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. There were also such incident at the University of London involving Bahar Mustafa as well as one involving a University of Pennsylvania professor.