We have previously discussed the controversial writings of George Ciccariello-Maher, a former Drexel University professor who was pushed to resign after a national outcry. Ciccariello-Maher has blamed the Las Vegas massacre on “Trumpism” and declared that “All I want for Christmas is white genocide.” He has insisted that some of his prior tweets have been”satirical,” though he appears to court controversy on social media. He has now announced to have been hired as a visiting scholar by New York University’s Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics.
Last year, he tweeted, “Some guy gave up his first class seat for a uniformed soldier. People are thanking him. I’m trying not to vomit or yell about Mosul.” Likewise, after the mass shooting in Las Vegas, he posted, “It’s the white supremacist patriarchy, stupid,” arguing the tragedy was caused by an overarching “narrative of white victimization.”
Despite a long history of writing highly offensive and prejudicial statements, I continued to question the effort to fire Ciccariello-Maher in exercising his free speech rights on social media. My concern was heightened by the demand of wealthy donors that the Ciccariello-Maher be fired. Thousands of university professors (including this one) engage in blogs and social media to express political, social, and academic viewpoints. Inevitably, there will be those who view many statements to be offensive or insulting. However, these academics retain not simply their rights of free speech but have historically been protected by the principles of academic freedom. If schools like Drexel destroy that tradition, any professor could be dismissed after some wealthy donor complains to a university president. University administrators are notorious for putting the bottomline ahead of principle in such controversies. The answer to Ciccariello-Maher is readily apparent: response with your own postings and arguments. That is the beauty of free speech. Bad speech can be countered by good speech.
There is however a countervailing concern. As we have previously discussed (including the recent story involving an Oregon 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.
As is well known on this blog, I tend to favor free speech rights in all of these cases. In my view, this view does seem to be satire — bad satire but satire all the same. However, the standard remains entirely uncertain for academics as to whether their conduct or comments outside of school will be the basis for discipline.
New York University is one of many universities with an ambiguous line for free speech. The question is whether NYU would hire a professor who called for “black genocide.” Ambiguous speech standards lend themselves to biased applications. If this hiring is setting a new standard for tolerance of the exercise of free speech, it would be a long needed bright line rule. However, if this is another content-based determination, it will only further undermine free speech on our campuses. That is why this hiring should be accompanied by some clear statement on the standard for the protection of free speech for faculty that is content-neutral.
Like many liberal protesters today, Ciccariello-Maher is not necessarily an advocate for free speech. In a recent Facebook post , Ciccariello-Maher blamed his loss of his Drexel job on conservatives who “[target] campuses with thinly veiled provocations disguised as free speech.” Neither his speech or that of his critics is “disguised as free speech,” it is free speech and deserving of protections.