We have been discussing disciplinary actions taken against faculty and students for statements made outside of their respective schools. The latest involves Chris Malone who was fired as the offensive line coach for The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga after he posted an insulting tweet about Georgia politician Stacey Abrams. The tweet was insulting and sophomoric but the action taken by the university is rightfully now a legal matter before the Eastern District of U.S. District Court of Tennessee. The defendants who Malone is suing include Chancellor Steven Angle, Athletic Director Mark Wharton and Coach Rusty Wright.
Malone was clearly upset by the Georgia Senate runoff races and wrote “Congratulations to the state GA and Fat Albert @staceyabrams because you have truly shown America the true works of cheating in an election, again!!! Enjoy the buffet Big Girl! You earned it!!! Hope the money was good, still not governor!”
It is a remarkably moronic and childish tweet and Malone deleted it after some of his former players reacted to it. However, he was quickly fired by the university.
Wright issued a statement that
“Our football program has a clear set of standards,. Those standards include respecting others. It is a message our players hear daily. It is a standard I will not waiver on. What was posted on social media by a member of my staff is unacceptable and not any part of what I stand for or what Chattanooga Football stands for. Life is bigger than football and as leaders of young men we have to set that example, first and foremost. With that said, effectively immediately, that individual is no longer a part of my staff…The sentiments in that post do not represent the values of our football program, our athletics department or our university.”
Malone however did not say that his tweet represented the university, football program, or anyone other than himself. He was criticizing a politician and a public figure. That is a core area of protected speech in the United States.
Where does the university draw the line? What if Malone called Abrams a “liar” but did not make the sophomoric references to her looks? Many academics routinely called Trump “fat,” “orange,” a “liar,” and other personal attacks but have no blowback from their universities. For example, Harvard Professor Lawrence Tribe (who President Biden just put on the Supreme Court commission) has routinely used juvenile and vulgar attacks against academics and political figures with opposing views, including myself. Tribe has called Trump a “terrorist” and supported a long litany of highly dubious criminal theories. He previously told CNN that “If you’re going to shoot him, you have to shoot to kill.” Tribe called Senator Mitch McConnell a “flagrant dickhead!” and loves to use Trump-like insults like “McTurtle” to refer to the Senator. He later ridiculed former Attorney General Bill Barr for his Catholic faith. His account has been described by critics as a “vector of misinformation and conspiracy theories on Twitter” where Tribe regularly engages in vulgar attacks on people holding opposing views. Tribe thrills his followers by referring to Trump as a “Dick” or “dickhead in chief.” Such slurs and invectives are all ignored when Tribe is offering consistent assurance that Trump can be prosecuted or impeached on an ever-expanding list of offenses. Indeed, the only time Tribe generated a modicum of criticism from the left was when he referred to the selection of an African American like Kamala Harris for Vice President as a merely “cosmetic” choice.
If tweeting insulting and juvenile messages about politicians is grounds for termination, Tribe and hundreds of other professors would be standing in the unemployment lines. The alternative is to maintain a bright line between views expressed in the course of employment as opposed to views expressed by individuals outside of their respective schools. I have no problem with the school privately reaching out to an academic to express concern or even condemnation over their conduct or statements. However, formal discipline or official condemnations raise serious free speech and sometimes academic freedom issues for faculty.
As previously discussed, my concern is the biased or conflicting handling of such cases. I have defended faculty who have made similarly disturbing comments discussing the gassing of white people, denouncing police, calling for Republicans to suffer, strangling police officers, celebrating the death of conservatives, calling for the killing of Trump supporters, supporting the murder of conservative protesters and other outrageous statements. These comments were not protested as creating an “unsafe environment” and were largely ignored by universities. However, professors and students are routinely investigated, suspended, and sanctioned for countervailing views. 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.
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. A conservative North Carolina professor faced calls for termination over controversial tweets and was pushed to retire. Dr. Mike Adams, a professor of sociology and criminology, had long been a lightning rod of controversy. In 2014, we discussed his prevailing in a lawsuit that alleged discrimination due to his conservative views. He was then targeted again after an inflammatory tweet calling North Carolina a “slave state.” That led to his being pressured to resign with a settlement. He then committed suicide
The efforts to fire professors who voice dissenting views on various issues including an effort to oust a leading economist from the University of Chicago as well as a leading linguistics professor at Harvard and a literature professor at Penn. Sites like Lawyers, Guns, and Money feature writers like Colorado Law Professor Paul Campus who call for the firing of those with opposing views (including myself). Such campaigns have targeted teachers and students who contest the evidence of systemic racism in the use of lethal force by police or offer other opposing views in current debates over the pandemic, reparations, electoral fraud, or other issues.