We have previously discussed the uncertain standard applying to teachers and professors who are subject to discipline for social media postings. It often seems that any termination or discipline is based upon subjective or majoritarian views of the content of postings. The latest such case is out of Catholic University of America where adjunct professor John Tieso has been suspended after tweets ridiculing Barack Obama and Kamala Harris after working for the school since 2013. Tieso told the site The College Fix that he is considering legal action.
The action occurred after an investigation by WUSA9 anchor Larry Miller into two tweets. One tweet on May 5 the referred to Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris as a “former escort.” Critics of Harris have long hounded her with such attacks tied to her dating of then Speaker of the California Assembly Willie Brown who was married and twice her age. Brown assisted Harris in her career. He also allegedly called President Barack Obama “[i]ncredibly incompetent and vain” and suggested Obama “consider staying in Africa and giving all his money to his people.”
According to news reports, Tieso was told by Busch School of Business Dean Andrew Abela, that he had to end such social media postings: “Your Twitter account has to go if you want to stay a member of the faculty.”
While Tieso was told that a couple students complained, he was never given information supporting the claim.
Lawrence Morris, chief of staff and counselor to the president, sent an email to President John Garvey, citing “racial tweets” from a “Busch school adjunct.”
Later Tieso was told of the suspension.
As we have previously discussed (including a story involving an Oregon professor and a Rutgers 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 such a double standard, even in the face of criminal conduct. There were also such an incident at the University of London involving Bahar Mustafa as well as one involving a University of Pennsylvania professor. Some intolerant statements against students are deemed free speech while others are deemed hate speech or the basis for university action. There is a lack of consistency or uniformity in these actions which turn on the specific groups left aggrieved by out-of-school comments. There is also a tolerance of faculty and students tearing down fliers and stopping the speech of conservatives. Indeed, even faculty who assaulted pro-life advocates was supported by faculty and lionized for her activism.
My concern is whether tweets attacking Trump like the one by the Rutgers professor would also lead to such action. These are deeply offensive tweets but they were sent outside of the school by an adjunct in his personal capacity. The uncertain line clearly creates a chilling effect on speech. The media attention seemed to drive the alleged action. The concern for free speech is obvious. There are sharply different responses to public comments and actions depending on the subject of the criticism by academics. Academic freedom and free speech require bright lines to avoid such uncertainty as to what will or will not be tolerated.