We have been discussing various cases of professors being investigated or terminated for raising dissenting views on subjects like systemic racism or Critical Race Theory (CRT). The latest such controversy is at the University of Texas where a professor is suing after he was allegedly threatened for criticizing as having “no scientific basis.” Notably, the complaint of Dr. Richard Lowery (below) admits that, despite being tenured, he began to self-censor his comments — a problem that is widespread among academics who now fear to speak freely in class or even outside of their universities.
Dr. Richard Lowery is an associate professor of finance at the McCombs School of Business and has written on a variety of subjects in The Hill, the Texas Tribune, the Houston Chronicle, the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, the Washington Times, and The College Fix.
He claims that he was warned about his continuing criticism, including the possible loss of his affiliation with the Salem Center, which would cost him a $20,000 stipend and research opportunities.
The complaint details pressure put on Lowery and his superior to get him to “tone down” his criticisms. The includes alleged lobbying by Meeta Kothare, director of the Global Sustainability Leadership Institute “to have UT Administrators censor Lowery.” At the same time, another Sustainability Institute employee, Madison Gove, emailed UT police officer Joseph Bishop, to ask for police surveillance of Lowery’s public statements.
Gove wrote “His name is Richard Lowery . . . [a]s mentioned, we are more worried about the people he reaches than him. Some of his supporters are authors, podcasters, and politicians. . . . Unfortunately, he switched his account to private mode today, so I cannot give you anything other than what I have. Perhaps you all can see more. The link is https://twitter.com/RichardLoweryTX.” Gove also provided Officer Bishop with screenshots of Lowery’s tweets, which she had gathered before he had set his account to private. Kothare and other UT administrators were copied on Gove’s email to the UT police requesting surveillance of Lowery’s speech. There is no indication that any UT administrator withdrew the request for police surveillance.
It has been common for critics to claim that a conservative faculty member is threatening the safety of colleagues or students by voicing dissenting views of subjects like CRT or DEI.
What is striking about the complaint is the Lowery said that the pressure worked and that he stopped his criticism. He then said that he decided to sue over the alleged pressure and harassment.
The reference to the chilling effect on speech is unfortunately all too familiar. We recently discussed how professors at MIT are fearful of speaking freely in class. Likewise, a recently discussed poll showed roughly 60 percent of students say that they fear speaking openly in class. That percentage is consistent with other polls taken across the country.
Cancel campaigns are now a common pattern in schools ranging from Yale to Northwestern to Georgetown. Blocking others from speaking is not the exercise of free speech. It is the very antithesis of free speech. Nevertheless, faculty have supported such claims. CUNY Law Dean Mary Lu Bilek showed how far this trend has gone. When conservative law professor Josh Blackman was stopped from speaking about “the importance of free speech,” Bilek insisted that disrupting the speech on free speech was free speech. (Bilek later cancelled herself and resigned over a comment that she made in a faculty meeting).
This dangerous trend in academia is discussed in my law review article, Jonathan Turley, “Harm and Hegemony: The Decline of Free Speech in the United States”, Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy.
One of the interesting aspects of the case will be any litigation over the chilling effect claimed in the complaint. The defendants are likely to argue that the instances of reduced speech were manufactured or calculated in anticipation of legal action. However, the complaint details specific efforts to get Lowery to change his public criticisms with specific references to his positions at the university. The defendants are also likely to argue that, while he is entitled to speak freely, the university can protect its programs from backlash due to the public controversies of an academic.
The lawsuit could have beneficial impacts by exposing common methods used to silence faculty critics. The campaign alleged in the complaint are very familiar tactics used to threaten faculty members. This includes both pressure from within the faculty and outside cancel campaigns. The academic flash mob pattern is now all too familiar.
Few professors are willing to risk such isolation and shunning. These campaigns take everything of value from an academic if they stand up and express dissenting thoughts. Even though the number of conservative and libertarian faculty have been reduced to near zero (or absolute zero) on many faculties, polls show even generally liberal faculty members are still fear possible retaliation for speaking freely as are their students. Most professors remain silent in the face of retaliatory actions directed at colleagues like Lowery. Others even lead the mob to target colleagues.
The greatest threat to the University of Texas could be discovery. If Lowery makes it through a motion to dismiss, he could start to call some of these officials into depositions. That could expose how these pressure campaigns use various pressure points to coerce or intimidate faculty into silence.
Here is the complaint: Lowery v. Mills