We often follow controversies at universities over free speech, but this week’s addition can be accurately described as nuts. Madera Community College History Professor David Richardson is under investigation as a possible confectionary reactionary . . . or at least that is what the school appears to be investigating. Richardson recently gave out candy on campus from Jeremy’s Chocolates labeled “HeHim” (nuts) and “She/Her” (nutless). For Richardson, the candies have led to his suspension pending official investigation.
Richardson reportedly brought the candy to an open house event for academic programs. The candy is connected to the conservative Daily Wire, which launched the chocolate brand two months ago in protest of Hershey’s naming “a biological male” as its spokesperson for International Women’s Day.
Richardson said that he had some of the candy left over from an earlier purchase and added them to the “goodies” he has always handed out at the history table for the open house event. That led to a confrontation with a staff member.
Richardson is now banned from “non-public” areas and blocked from his email. He says that he was told that he is under investigation for “serious misconduct.”
He insists that it was just all a joke. That may be part of the problem. The age of rage, however, is a dwindling place for humor. Indeed, even professional comedians have complained that cancel campaigns have virtually banned them from campuses.
Richardson told Just in the News that he was informed that the candies reflected a human sexual binary view that was considered a violation of school policies and created a “hostile work environment.” He said that he was also accused of harassing and discriminating against colleagues “based on gender.”
The site reported that Richardson, who describes himself as a gay conservative, is already suing over sanctions for comments made during a mandatory October 2021 “pronoun etiquette” seminar led by transgender chemistry professor Jamie MacArthur.
The incident involved participants being given a “small thumbnail” with fields for their name and gender identity. Richardson jokingly put “Do, Re, Mi” to register his view that the “irrational perception of reality … would frustrate communication for ideological reasons,” according to his complaint.
MacArthur objected later that the “joke” was “extremely offensive” to transgender people. Richardson responded by using “Do, Re, Mi” as his pronouns while addressing MacArthur as “they,” MacArthur’s preferred pronouns.
After a six-month “investigation,” the school found that MacArthur intentionally used “second- and third-person pronouns in a mocking manner” and sought to intimidate MacArthur when Richardson copied others on a response. In addition to a letter of official reprimand, Richardson was ordered to “immediately stop using pronouns in a mocking manner in the workplace” though the school did not define “mocking” conduct.
It is not clear if the school views the candy as a “mocking” incident for a professor effectively on probation from the earlier joke.
Richardson was also ordered to take diversity, equity and inclusion training. Finally, he maintains that he was told to submit a written response on what he learned and how he can “create a more inclusive environment that does not center on homophobia or transphobia” in his home and “religious group.”
Richardson clearly has political and social objections to pronoun policies, a view shared by some academics. There is litigation across the country on the issue involving both students and faculty. Some have been successful or settled in favor of the right to refuse to use such pronouns, including a favorable ruling by the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in a case involving a college professor. However, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit recently upheld the termination of a high school teacher who refused to comply with such a policy.
Pronouns are fast fading from common discourse under the threat of pronoun penalties. Indeed, many faculty members try to avoid using pronouns altogether in class, rather than look up a student’s designated pronoun. Confirming the right pronouns can be challenging in the middle of a fast-moving class. Students today identify from a growing list of gender identities including, but not limited to, genderfluid, third-gender, amalgagender, demigender, bi-gender, pansgender, and a-gender. Pronouns can include, but are not limited to: He/She, They/Them, Ze/Hir (Ze, hir, hir, hirs, hirself), Ze/Zir (Ze, zir, zir, zirs, ze), Spivak (Ey, em, eir, eirs, ey), Ve (Ve, ver, vis, vis, verself), and Xe (Xe, xem, xyr, xyrs, xe).
This case is interesting because it involves a candy bowl as a vehicle of alleged prohibited speech. Richardson insists that he was just getting rid of excess candy but the bars were also a political statement. There are two immediate questions in the case. First, there is the right of Richardson to refuse to comply with pronoun policies. Second, there is the question of the right to publicly question (and, yes, “mock”) such policies.
The position of the school is unclear. Richardson was acting as a representative of the history department. However, it is not clear whether a candy with an opposing humorous political message would have been the subject of disciplinary action. For example, would a professor be disciplined for joking about those with binary views in class or at an open house? Likewise, could Richardson post an objection to the policy as a matter of academic freedom, as some have done over policies like land acknowledgments?
This is likely to lead to further litigation for both Richardson and Madera Community College. Indeed, Professor Richardson could elect to respond in the same way that Gen. Anthony McAuliffe responded to a demand for surrender in the Battle of the Bulge: