There is an interesting case out of the United Kingdom on academic freedom versus anti-discrimination policies. Aysha Khanom was fired as an academic adviser with Leeds Beckett University after making racist comments about black conservative commentator Calvin Robinson. Khanom is making an equally controversial claim in court: her racist language is protected speech as an advocate for critical race theory. It is another distasteful but important case over the protections afforded academics in their communications outside of universities or colleges.
Khanom worked for Leeds Beckett University in its “Center for Race, Education and Decoloniality.”
That came to an end when she was found to have used “racist language” in denouncing Robinson. According to The Guardian, the Twitter account associated with the Khanom’s Race Trust asked Robinson if he felt any shame due to the fact that “most people” view him as a “house negro.” While Khanom’s name is not on the tweet, she reportedly accepted responsibility for it and referred to a later commenter who responded to the tweet as a “coconut.”
Her claim is supported by other figures like Professor Kehinde Andrews, who has denounced Churchill as “white supremacist.” Andrews insists that the term is not a “racial slur” but rather a “concept that come out of struggles for racial justice.”
The suggestion is that a term that might be considered a racial slur from others is not a racial slur when used by advocates of racial justice. As Khanom told The Guardian
“[The remarks] were offensive – they’re meant to be offensive because they’re antiracist terms. You’re highlighting a problem, so how can someone be racist by calling someone out for going against their own kind? It’s almost upholding white supremacy. It’s so contradictory it’s unreal, racists have taken these terms and defined them for us. There is no way they are racist. They are meant to make someone feel uncomfortable but just because something’s offensive doesn’t mean you can’t say it.”
As will come as little surprise to many on this blog, my default is in favor of free speech outside of the university setting. This was a comment made on social media on a site not connected to the university. It was a deeply insulting and unjustified attack against anyone. It is unfortunately indicative of the irresponsible and over-heated rhetoric of our times. Nevertheless, my preference is for good speech to answer bad speech, not to have universities (or, worse yet, the state) regulated or censor speech.
Khanom has denounced her position as the result of a campaign by a “network of alt-Right activists” and that the university is forcing academics to
“look over their shoulder before they make statements about Israel and Palestine, or about critical race theory. That is why this case and LBU’s role in it is not just about me and my reputation as an anti-racist. Fundamentally, this is an important issue of freedom of speech.”
We have previously discussed the concern that academics are allowed (correctly) to voice extreme views on social justice and police misconduct, but that there is less tolerance for the voicing of opposing views on such subjects. There were analogous 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.
Nevertheless, In the past, I have defended extremist views on academic freedom grounds lie those of University of Rhode Island professor Erik Loomis, who has defended the murder of a conservative protester and said that he saw “nothing wrong” with such acts of violence. (Loomis also writes for the site “Lawyers, Guns, and Money.”) I have defended faculty who have made similarly disturbing comments “detonating 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.
The concern is that universities are not only displaying bias in some actions but generally fail to offer a bright line rule for proscribing speech. These public debates can be raw and social media often brings out the worst in individuals like Khanom. Many sites (like this blog) will remove racial insults or personal threats. However, we try to minimize such removals in favor of encouraging people to interact like responsible adults. This case concerns whether universities or the state should be punishing those who cross the line in social media or personal statements.
We have been discussing the continuing erosion of free speech protections in the United Kingdom (here and here and here and here and here and here and here). Once you start as a government to criminalize speech, you end up on a slippery slope of censorship. What constitutes hate speech or “malicious communications” remains a highly subjective matter and we have seen a steady expansion of prohibited terms and words and gestures. Even having “toxic ideologies” is now a crime. As noted in a prior column, free speech appears to be dying in the West with the increasing criminalization of speech under discrimination, hate, and blasphemy laws.
Faculty members should exercise greater restraint and serve as an example for their students. However, Khanom wants to be an example of a different kind: an insulting and confrontational advocate who labels opponents as racists or racial traitors. Like many, she is the price we pay for free speech. While many of these advocates do not support the free speech of others and support efforts to fire those with opposing views, it is not so easy for those who value true free speech values.