Now for some good news. We have been following efforts to have professors stripped of academic positions or outright fired for voicing opposing views of police shootings, Black Lives Matter movement or aspects of recent protests from the University of Chicago to Harvard to Cornell to other schools. Now we have a professor at Creighton University who has triggered an outcry by calling support for police officers an expression of white supremacy. The University later issued an apology on behalf of Associate Professor of Theology Zachary Smith but no one has called for his termination. Today, that is progress. We can only hope that if Smith’s comments were directed at groups or issues associated with the current protests, the university and his colleagues would have the same measured or muted response.
On July 7th, Smith tweeted a response to an article in the Omaha World-Herald. The article, headlined “‘Back the Blue’ rally in Omaha to show support for law enforcement.”
He responded with discussed details for an upcoming rally in Omaha to show support for law enforcement. “Lemme fix this headline for you, @OWHnews: “White supremacist rally in Omaha to showcase Midwestern racism.”
First, worse headline ever. Smith is likely much stronger on writing on Byzantine Christians than he is as a copy editor.
Second, the tweet obviously treats support for police as an expression of racism. It is the type of labeling that we have seen around the country where it is no longer possible to disagree with others. Instead, any view deemed unsupportive of the protests is denounced as racism. It is the type of slanderous claim that will garner popularity for an academic in many circles while creating a chilling effect on others who might hold opposing views.Smith’s response shows how such unfair and hurtful views are becoming a type of badge for academics; a public declaration that they are on the right side of racism.
This time however it triggered a backlash in Nebraska where police still have considerable support and Smith removed his tweet. While it would have been good for Smith to issue a statement directly, this is a good story for free speech because no one is campaigning for his termination on Change.org or other sites. Instead, his outrageous views were denounced in the same public forum in which they were given. While I find his view of police (and their supporters) to be highly offensive, I would oppose any effort to punish him.
This measured response however has been largely missing on our campuses when faculty express views critical of the protests or underlying demands. Unlike Chicago’s Harald Uhlig, the senior editor of the prestigious the Journal of Political Economy, there was no call to strip Smith of his editorial position on the Journal of Religion & Society. Unlike Harvard’s Professor Steven Pinker, a respected member of the Linguistic Society of America, there was no effort to see Smith removed from the American Academy of Religion or the Society of Biblical Literature. Unlike Cornell’s William A. Jacobson, there was no effort to have him removed from the faculty. Indeed, the faculty was absolutely silent in silence to his attack of police and those who support them as racists.
I would like to believe that this is due to a faculty reaffirming academic freedom and free speech – not implicit support for his views or a fear of retaliation if they speak out against such offensive comments.
Let’s assume that free speech values prevails. Smith can continue to label those with opposing views of the police as white supremacists and the rest of us can counter that view with our own exercise of free speech. No petitions. No public campaign of retaliation. No threats against his physical safety. Just free speech countering free speech.