Professor Sarah Parcak of the University of Alabama-Birmingham has been a lightning rod of controversy, particularly on conservative news sites, for her calls for banning books and “how to” instructions on toppling public art like obelisks in violent protests. She is now under fire for saying that she hoped that conservative figures like the recently deceased radio commentator Rush Limbaugh “suffered until their last breath.” She has since taken her Twitter account private to bar general access, but some are calling for her to be fired. As will come as little surprise to many on this free speech site, I strongly oppose such calls even though I find Parcak’s extremist and unhinged views reprehensible.On Twitter, Parcak declared “When a terrible piece of scum who caused immeasurable harm to millions dies, there is no sympathy. Only a desire that they suffered until their last breath.” She is not alone in such hateful statements celebrating the death of another human being.Parcak is not alone in the race to the bottom. Various liberal sites have celebrated the death with some joyously declaring things like “rest in piss.” Huff Post ran a virtually jubilant headline.As an academic, Parcak’s words are particularly concerning since she extends her desire for suffering to the broader array of conservatives. This includes viewpoints that are likely shared by many faculty and students at her university. It reflects a type of raging intolerance and hatred that undermines the faith of many that they will be treated with respect and civility in classrooms and on campus.UAB President Ray Watts issued a Wednesday night statement that said the university is “disgusted and extremely troubled” that Parcak engaged in such speech that is “so unprofessional and blindly inhumane and cruel.”However, what concerned me was the statement that the university was “reviewing the matter.” Parcak’s public commentary is vile and extremist but it is also, in my view, protected as free speech. She has a right to speak her mind about figures like Limbaugh even when her views are grotesque and offensive for many. We do not need the First Amendment to protect popular speech. Popular speech is not targeted precisely because it is popular. The test of our commitment to free speech is to protect speech that we find objectionable and wrong.
We have previously discussed radical voices on faculties who defend violence and even murder. One professor recently called for more Trump supporters to be killed. Rhode Island Professor Erik Loomis, who writes for the site Lawyers, Guns, and Money, said he saw “nothing wrong” with the killing of a conservative protester — a view defended by other academics. I have opposed calls for terminating such academics. Indeed, while sites like Lawyers, Guns, and Money feature writers like law professor Paul Campus who call for the firing of those with opposing views (including myself), it is not their commitment to free speech but our own that must guide our actions.
If Professor Parcak has displayed bias or discrimination against students in her classes, there is every reason to investigate. However, I have not seen any account alleging such misconduct. This appears her personal views of Limbaugh and other conservatives expressed on her personal Twitter account. I would have preferred a statement simply declaring that the university will continue to support the free speech rights of all of its faculty and students regardless of personal or even widespread condemnation of such speech.
Professor Parcak has an impressive academic record in Archaeological Studies. Absent allegations of misconduct in her classes or on campus, I do not see the basis for investigation by the university. Being a good person is not a condition for teaching so long as you are a good academic.
Parcak and others are the price we pay for free speech.