North Carolina Professor Triggers A Free Speech Fight Over Inflammatory Tweet

download-3Dr. Mike Adams, a professor of sociology and criminology, has long been a lightning rod of controversy. In 2014, we discussed his prevailing in a lawsuit that alleged discrimination due to his conservative views.  Now Adams has triggered a firestorm — and a petition for his removal — after an inflammatory tweet calling North Carolina a “slave state.” As will come as no surprise again on this blog, I am inclined to view this as a free speech matter that should be protected.  However, the university is threatening possible action against Adams.

On May 29, Adams tweeted: “This evening I ate pizza and drank beer with six guys at a six seat table top. I almost felt like a free man who was not living in the slave state of North Carolina. Massa Cooper, let my people go!”

As we have previously discussed (with an Oregon professor and a Rutgers professor), there remains an uncertain line in what language is protected for teachers in their private lives. There were also 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.

Free speech demands bright line rules to flourish. The different treatment afforded faculty creates an obviously chilling effect on free speech.  Avoiding the chilling effect of potential punishment for speech is a core concern running through Supreme Court cases.  For example, in 1964, the Supreme Court struck down the law screening incoming mail. A unanimous court, Justice William Douglas rejected the law as “a limitation on the unfettered exercise of the addressee’s First Amendment rights.” It noted that such review “is almost certain to have a deterrent effect” on the free speech rights of Americans, particularly for “those who have sensitive positions:”

For academics, the greatest threat to academic freedom are ill-defined standards allowing for punitive measures against professors for statements both inside and outside of school.  There is no allegation against Adams for statements made to students or his conduct as a professor. It is a particular concern when the school is threatening potential action with a professor who previously demonstrated political bias against him. There is a pronounced political orthodoxy among academics, particularly in recent years. Most schools have relatively few conservatives or libertarians. If social media can be used to crackdown on professors, it would allow for arbitrary and opportunistic actions against unpopular academics.

Faculty can condemn such tweets without threatening official punitive measures.

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Res ipsa loquitur – The thing itself speaks
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