“She’s a [expletive] professor!” Those four words screamed by pro-choice protesters could well sum up the issue for the State University of New York at Albany after the arrest of sociology professor Renee Overdyke. At a recent pro-life demonstration, Overdyke unplugged an electric display to prevent students from expressing their opposition to abortion. She then resisted arrest. The question, which we have previously discussed, is where the university should draw the line in the conduct of faculty in preventing free speech.
The pro-life display at the university attracted a loud counter-demonstration, which is of course fine and good. Universities are supposed to be a place for debate and both sides were exercising their free speech rights.
As students chanted “my body, my choice” and other messages, Created Equal continued their own demonstration against abortion with the help of a large electronic display. The display showed aborted fetuses to bring home what they called the “reality of abortion” and “what abortion does to preborn babies.”
That is when Professor Overdyke, 57, allegedly unplugged Created Equal’s electronic display.
Overdyke took this action despite the university distributing a pamphlet to students at the event repeating the rules for free speech behavior, including a prohibition on actions to prevent or obstruct someone else’s free speech. This message was all the more important because a conservative speaker had been shouted down two weeks earlier.
As a posted video shows, Overdyke then proceeded to resist arrest:
Professor arrested for shutting down pro-life event.
On April 19, U. of Albany sociology professor, Renee Overdyke, was arrested for shutting down our large LED screen and then resisting arrest. Her swift apprehension by police permitted Created Equal to resume the broadcast of… pic.twitter.com/SCePpybjjk
— Mark Harrington (@mharringtonlive) April 21, 2023
One student screams “she’s a [expletive] professor.” That is precisely the point. As the university was telling students that they could not obstruct the event, Overdyke is accused of doing precisely that. She sought to prevent others from being able to speak on campus.
Years ago, many of us were shocked by the conduct of University of Missouri communications professor Melissa Click who directed a mob against a student journalist covering a Black Lives Matter event. Yet, Click was hired by Gonzaga University. Since that time, we have seen a steady stream of professors joining students in shouting down, committing property damage, participating in riots, verbally attacking students, or even taking violent action in protests.
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). Even student newspapers have declared opposing speech to be outside of the protections of free speech. At University of California- Santa Barbara, professors actually rallied around a professor who physically assaulted pro-life advocates and tore down their display.
As more schools have expressly declared that they will not permit such shout downs, many academics still insist that preventing others from speaking is free speech. It is an absurd and dangerous claim. It will convert our institutions into little more than shout fests where the loudest prevails. Given the dwindling number of conservative or libertarian faculty, it is a way to effectively bar opposing views from being heard on campuses. It is as easy as unplugging a display at the University of Albany.
The question is what is to be done with Professor Overdyke. In taking this action, she not only sought to silence students but directly violated the policies of the university. Free speech and free inquiry are the very touchstones of higher education. She has taken a stand against the right of others to be heard and the university has an obligation to take action to sanction this conduct.
Of course, such action has been relatively rare even when universities object to anti-free speech conduct. We recently discussed the cancellation of federal appellate Judge Kyle Duncan by Stanford Law School students, a disgraceful attack on free speech that led to an apology from both the law school dean and the university president. However, as I discussed earlier, many faculty support such anti-free speech measures. Stanford notably refused to take action against the students, though a dean did take a leave of absence.
In the meantime, Overdyke is now facing criminal charges for disturbing a lawful assembly, resisting arrest, and obstruction of governmental administration.
The criminal charges may not prove as much of a professional barrier as one might think. Feminist Studies Associate Professor Mireille Miller-Young pleaded guilty to criminally assaulting pro-life advocates on campus and was supported by faculty and honored by other schools.
Professor Overdyke has now presented Albany with a clear choice. It can confirm that faculty members are accountable to free speech rules or it can confirm that these rules are a mere pretense of principle.