We have been writing about efforts to fire professors who have criticized the “Defund the Police” campaign or Black Lives Matter. Now, Charles Negy, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Central Florida, is under school investigation and has received police protection after he tweeted about what he views as “black privilege.” While countless professors have written about “white privilege,” Negy is looking at discipline or termination while police have been called to his house to protect his life. Negy is not the first professor to be put under police protection after voicing criticism of the protests or BLM. Once again, I am less interested in the merits of the underlying debate as the implications for free speech and academic freedom. As one of the large free speech blogs, we have long discussed efforts to pressure or fire academics for their exercise of free speech and academic freedom. Recently, however, these efforts have been joined by schools and fellow academics who seek to deter others from expressing opposing views.
Negy is facing outrage caused over his tweets in early June including a petition demanding his termination by more than 30,000 signatures. While classroom misconduct has been raised by some critics, most of the effort (and the focus of this posting) is on his statements on social media. That petition addresses Negy’s statements on social media as unacceptable and grounds for termination:
“We are calling on the University of Central Florida to dismiss psychology professor Charles Negy due to abhorrent racist comments he has made and continues to make on his personal Twitter account. In addition to racism, Negy has engaged in perverse transphobia and sexism on his account, which is just as reprehensible. While he has a right to free speech, he does not have a right to dehumanize students of color and other minority groups, which is a regular occurance [sic] in his classroom. By allowing him to continue in his position, UCF would simply be empowering another cog in the machine of systemic racism.”
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.
Negy has faced protests at his home and on campus, according to news reports. He has explored the concept of “white shaming” as an academic, including a book entitled “White Shaming: Bullying Based on Prejudice, Virtue-signaling, and Ignorance.”
Negy’s work is highly controversial and his tweets have inflamed critics. In a now deleted tweet, he wrote “Black privilege is real: Besides affirm. action, special scholarships and other set asides, being shielded from legitimate criticism is a privilege. But as a group, they’re missing out on much needed feedback.”
He has also written, again on Twitter, “If Afr. Americans as a group, had the same behavioral profile as Asian Americans (on average, performing the best academically, having the highest income, committing the lowest crime, etc.), would we still be proclaiming ‘systematic racism’ exists?”
Again, the question is not the merits or tenor of such writings but the right of academics to express such viewpoints. There is little comparable protests when professors write inflammatory comments about white culture or white privilege. Indeed, I have supported academics who have been criticized for such statements. However, the silence of other academics in these countervailing cases is deafening.
Indeed, many faculty like those at Cornell are pledging to combat what they call “racism masquerading as informed commentary.” When done through their own right to free speech, this is perfectly appropriate. However, there are now a variety of cases where faculty are supporting efforts to force colleagues to retire or to fire colleagues for expressing opposing views.
UCF President Alexander Cartwright told students that the university is now investigating Negy, and that he and his Administration “are acutely aware of the offensive and hurtful Twitter posts that professor Charles Negy has shared on his personal page. These posts do not reflect the values of UCF, and I strongly condemn these racist and abhorrent posts.”
So again the question is how we handle such disputes while respecting core protections of free speech. Faculty at state schools have the added protections from government regulation of speech. However, even public school principals have faced content-based discipline for questioning the protests or BLM movement. It is the lack of a clear standard or consistent application as academics that is so troubling. The message of academics is that their positions can be lost if they express opposing views or dispute a rising orthodox position on these positions on campus.
Again, I often find statements from academics on both sides to be repugnant and inflammatory. However, I am admittedly “old school” when it comes to free speech, particularly on campus. I have been writing for years about the erosion of free speech values in our colleges and universities. I have never seen the level of fear and intimidation in speaking with faculty today. Most are afraid of being labeled racist if they utter a single objection to these measures or the targeting of unpopular colleagues. The result is a chilling effect on speech that is being actively encouraged by Administrators and faculty in investigating, censuring, and condemning faculty to express opposing views on current issues like “Defund The Police.”
When I first entered teaching 30 years ago, universities were viewed as places of passionate debate and pluralistic viewpoints. For years, we have seen ideological rigidity and intolerance supplant those values – a trend that is destroying the very intellectual freedom that gives life and meaning to our educational institutions. This is not about any individual academic or the merits of their speech. It is about all of us and when we will take a stand for the right of expression and academic freedoms — even of those with whom we vehemently disagree.