Furman Professor Suspended Due to his Presence at the 2017 Charlottesville “Unite the Right” Rally

There is a major free speech fight brewing at Furman University after Computer Science Professor Chris Healy was placed on leave pending an investigation into his presence at the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Regardless of how one feels about Healy’s political views or associations, the suspension raises serious challenges to free speech and associational rights. Last month, a group called Sunlight Anti-Fascist Action posted a picture of Computer Science Professor Chris Healy at the rally, writing and asked “What’s that you’re standing next to, Chris – a Confederate flag?” The group and others then pushed for an investigation by the university, which Furman President Elizabeth Davis agreed to order.

Davis stated that the suspension was justified not simply due to the attendance at the rally but the fact that Healy is “alleged to be associated with other organizations that are connected with white supremacist groups that promote racism, exclusion and hatred.”

She also linked counseling services to help faculty and students “process these events.”

Davis insisted that “it is our responsibility when matters like these come to light to engage in robust dialogue about what belonging and thriving mean on our campus and beyond. As we continue to struggle with this difficult situation, we intend to engage our campus in further conversation.”

It is also her responsibility to protect free speech and associational rights for an institution of higher education, even a private university.

Indeed, while the First Amendment does not directly apply to a private institution, state law does impose some of the same protections. Under Section 16-17-560, South Carolina mandates:

“It is unlawful for a person to assault or intimidate a citizen, discharge a citizen from employment or occupation, or eject a citizen from a rented house, land, or other property because of political opinions or the exercise of political rights and privileges guaranteed to every citizen by the Constitution and laws of the United States or by the Constitution and laws of this State.”

The university itself expressly commits to the principles of the American Association of University Professors, including the following:

“College and university teachers are citizens, members of a learned profession, and officers of an educational institution. When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations. As scholars and educational officers, they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.” [emphasis added]

Healy did not apparently associate his political activity or expression with the university. Indeed, it is not clear what if anything he said at the rally.

Moreover, it is not clear from the coverage what groups Healy is accused of supporting. However, this was a political demonstration during his own time and there is no allegations of any bias or misconduct on campus or in his educational capacity. There was nothing unlawful about Healy participating in the rally and he has not been accused of any violent act.

There were violent, racist, and antisemitic groups at the march. There were also those who oppose the removal of statues like the one of Robert E. Lee on historical or other grounds.

I do not know Healy’s political views but it does not matter from a free speech perspective. We are often called upon to defend the rights of those with whom we disagree or even those who we detest. Indeed, the extremist groups present at the Charlottesville rally were voicing antisemitic views that are threatening to members of my own family.

That is why it does not matter what Healy may believe or advocate. I have defended faculty who have made similarly disturbing comments “detonating white people,” abolish white people, denouncing policecalling for Republicans to suffer,  strangling police officerscelebrating the death of conservativescalling for the killing of Trump supporters, supporting the murder of conservative protesters and other outrageous statements. I also defended the free speech rights of University of Rhode Island professor Erik Loomis, who defended the murder of a conservative protester and said that he saw “nothing wrong” with such acts of violence.

Even when faculty engage in hateful acts on campus, however, there is a notable difference in how universities respond depending on the viewpoint. At the University of California campus, professors actually rallied around a professor who physically assaulted pro-life advocates and tore down their display.

When these controversies arose, faculty rallied behind the free speech rights of the professors. That support was far more muted or absent when conservative faculty have found themselves at the center of controversies. The recent suspension of Ilya Shapiro is a good example. Other faculty have had to go to court to defend their free speech rights.

Furman University should be clear on its scope of its assertion of authority over such political expression outside of the school. Where does the university draw the line? Many faculty view Trump rallies or even the GOP as inherently racist and even violent. Others condemn leftist associations with Antifa and other groups as supporting violence. Will the university now investigate all such associations?

Free speech and academic freedom demand bright-line rules to avoid the chilling effect of ambiguity. Political associations outside of the school should not depend on the permission of the majority at a university. Whatever the trauma produced by this picture, the lasting damage to the university will be far greater if faculty and students are now subject to the monitoring and the approval of the university for political expression or associations.

Once again, with the exception of conservative sites like College Fix, there have been no significant objections from faculty over the notion that their political associations or activities off campus can now be the subject of suspension or termination. The ACLU is again absent, though the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) has taken up the controversy.




56 thoughts on “Furman Professor Suspended Due to his Presence at the 2017 Charlottesville “Unite the Right” Rally”

  1. At the heart of JT’s “free speech” philosophy are norms of expression that don’t carry the force of law. Rather, these are vague norms always in situational flux.

    As someone who had led design teams, the best result depends on maintaining cohesion of purpose and goodwill among team members, and each acting in good faith as team players. Mutual trust and encouragement are the coin of the realm.

    A constructive environment is a higher priority than freedom of individuals to say whatever impulse seizes them. The team leader sets the tone for the honesty, directness, on-topic, and goodwill, and depends upon the majority to not only obey buy enforce norms of communication. The type of freedom of speech in a productive, cohesive group is self-regulated and cooperative, but not inhibiting to creative, out-of-the-box divergent thought.

    This represents the ideal.

    What JT argues for is so far astray from this ideal as to invite militancy, conniving, irresponsible, naive idealism, and sabotage. The outright defiance of norms of civility is a prescription for decline, fracture, alienation, and militancy setting conditions for civil war.

    The legal system can only do so much to defend these norms. It has to be each individual citizen who learns how to face challenges as groups and be a leader when called for situationally.

    1. pbinCA,

      Business is an autocratic system, run by Management, that is directed by a board, to carry out the mission of board of directors.

      In no way can that be compared to a government structure were the PEOPLE are sovereign. Not the government.

  2. Attending a rally opposing the tearing down of Confederate statues is bad. Attending a rally supporting the killing, dismemberment, and incineration of unborn human beings is good.

  3. So if our newest Supreme Court justice stands next to our Constitution she must therefore adhere to it?
    But that it were that easy.

    1. “So if our newest Supreme Court justice stands next to our Constitution she must therefore adhere to it?
      But that it were that easy.”
      You’d first have to explain to her what a Constitution is. Whadayouthink? She’s an ancient document expert?

      Oh and it might come up before her at some point so she can’t tell us.

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