There is a controversy raging at the University of Cambridge after English professor Priyamvada Gopal posted a June 23rd tweet that “White Lives Don’t Matter.” Thousands signed a petition to have Gopal fired but the university has correctly stood by her free speech rights. The question should not be whether Gopal is fired, but the virtual certainty that she would have been fired in many universities if she made the same comment about other races. As a blog focusing on free speech, we have repeatedly discussed the investigation and termination of professors for controversial statements on social media. The greatest concern is the lack of any consistent or coherent protection of free speech in universities. Free speech dies with doubt as to what will be the subject of toleration and what will be the subject of termination. That is why bright line rules are maintained by courts in this field that specifically bar content-based viewpoint discrimination from the government.
After the initial outcry, Gopal reportedly tweeted “I’ll say it again. White Lives Don’t Matter. As white lives.” Twitter however took down the tweet.
While the petition garnered more than 20,000 signatures on Change.org, it was deleted for bullying and harassment. A Change.org spokesman said that the petition was a form of “bullying” because it singled out Gopal. However, given petitions still online against professors for criticizing Black Lives Matter, Change.org has been accused of its own content-based viewpoint discrimination.
Cambridge defended Gopal and even denounced the students’ efforts to have her removed from her position: “The University defends the right of its academics to express their own lawful opinions which others might find controversial and deplores in the strongest terms abuse and personal attacks. These attacks are totally unacceptable and must cease.”
As should come as no surprise, I agree wholeheartedly with the university’s position. The problem is that such protective positions seem to be based on the content of the viewpoint, much like the standard applied by Change.org.
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 was 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.
Most recently, we have been writing about efforts to fire professors who have criticized the “Defund the Police” campaign or the Black Lives Matter movement. Some of these controversies were fueled by petitions on Change.org. Moreover, universities are now regularly denouncing academics or putting them under investigation after criticizing the Black Lives Matter movement or aspects of the the recent protests. Faculty members are even being told by their colleagues that they will be attacked for “racism masquerading as informed commentary.” These campaigns have worked. Most faculty no longer expect any support from their universities if they are accused of such insensitivity. Indeed, in thirty years of teaching, I have never seen this level of intimidation of faculty in terms of what they say on social media or even in their classrooms. The almost universal silence of other faculty to support their colleagues has turned this chilling effect into a perfectly glacial condition for free speech and academic freedom.
The Cambridge controversy captures the problem. It is doubtful that Change.org would have taken down the petition or Cambridge would have chastised the students if Gopal’s message were reversed. However, just as faculty feel that they cannot criticize aspects of this movement or the protests, other faculty like Gopal know that they will be entirely protected. That sense of free speech should be universal among all faculty. It is not.
Thus, I am gladdened by the protection afforded to Gopal but, if this is a true free speech moment, the controversy should highlight the need for consistent protections of such rights for faculty engaging in our national debate for racism and reforms.