Last week, many of us initially celebrated the reinstatement of the Center for the Constitution Director Ilya Shapiro as a belated but important victory for free speech and academic freedom. Then we all read the rationale from Law Dean William Treanor, who adopted a technicality that not only avoided a full endorsement of Shapiro’s rights but left a menacing uncertainty as to his (and any other conservative’s) future protections at Georgetown University Law School. Shapiro has elected to leave Georgetown to take a position with the Manhattan Institute given the lack of support for his right to speak freely at the law school. Unfortunately, most schools want to avoid litigation (and the controversy) over terminating dissenting faculty. The preference is to make life on faculties so hostile or intolerable that faculty will simply resign.
Shapiro is under fire for his opposition to the pledge by President Joe Biden to limit consideration for the next Supreme Court nominee to a black female. Shapiro sent out a horrendously badly worded tweet that supported a liberal Indian-American jurist as opposed to a “lesser black woman.” He later removed the tweet and repeatedly apologized. He explained that he was referring to lesser qualifications vis-a-vis his preferred nominee, Sri Srinivasan, a liberal judge on the D.C. Circuit.
Georgetown faculty has supported the effort to fire Shapiro, including my former colleague Paul Butler who wrote a condemning op-ed in the Washington Post. Some faculty insisted that Shapiro is a raving racist who actually believes that, while supporting other minorities for the Court, African American women are unqualified as a group from sitting on the Court. That has been presented as more plausible than a poorly worded tweet.
Many of us have encouraged Georgetown to resist such calls in support of free speech and academic freedom protections. However, the school kept Shapiro suspended for months and offered little public support for his rights. As we have seen at other schools, those faculty who were not actively seeking his termination were conspicuously silent over his rights and treatment.
Then came the reinstatement. As Shapiro noted in his resignation letter, Dean Treanor “cleared me on a jurisdictional technicality, but the IDEAA Report—and your own statements to the Law Center community—implicitly repealed Georgetown’s vaunted Speech and Expression Policy and set me up for discipline the next time I transgress progressive orthodoxy.” Indeed, it is not clear why this took months if the law school is saying that he was not subject to the school’s standards at the time of his tweet.
The Dean, however, added the menacing statement that if Shapiro “were to make another, similar or more serious remark as a Georgetown employee, a hostile environment based on race, gender, and sex likely would be created.”
This was not the response given at the university to an earlier professor who suggested castrating Republicans or other racially or politically controversial comments from faculty.We recently discussed the different treatment given liberal and conservative speakers at Boston University after students passed a resolution calling a conservative speaker a danger to their safety. They further declared that “intentionally incendiary speech and rhetoric” is unprotected by free speech principles. Yet, Boston University Professor Saida Grundy the same week made incendiary comments to justify criminal acts, including looting, as racial justice. Grundy has a history of racial statements against white students and faculty. As I noted, both speakers should be protected by the same free speech values.
The support enjoyed by faculty on the far left is in sharp contrast to the treatment given faculty with moderate, conservative or libertarian views. Anyone who raises such dissenting views is immediately set upon by a mob demanding their investigation or termination. This includes blocking academics from speaking on campuses like a recent Classics professor due to their political views. Conservatives and libertarians understand that they have no cushion or protection in any controversy, even if it involves a single, later deleted tweet.
One such campaign led to a truly tragic outcome with criminology professor Mike Adams at the University of North Carolina (Wilmington). Adams was a conservative faculty member with controversial writings who had to go to court to stop prior efforts to remove him. He then tweeted a condemnation of North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper for his pandemic rules, tweeting that he had dined with six men at a six-seat table and “felt like a free man who was not living in the slave state of North Carolina” before adding: “Massa Cooper, let my people go.” It was a stupid and offensive tweet. However, we have seen extreme comments on the left — including calls to gas or kill or torture conservatives — be tolerated or even celebrated at universities.
Celebrities, faculty and students demanded that Adams be fired. After weeks of public pummeling, Adams relented and took a settlement to resign. He then killed himself a few days before his final day as a professor.
Like many schools, Georgetown cannot continue the pretense of protecting free speech and academic freedom when it is actively creating a hostile workplace for those with conservative, libertarian or dissenting views. The double standard is evident in schools across the country. Liberal faculty can expect full-throated and unqualified support for their free speech while conservatives understand that they have no margin for controversy or error.