College backs off on dissenting professor

September 15, 2005

Faced with the threat of legal action, a New York City college pledged not to investigate a professor who objected to the school’s policy of requiring education students be committed to a particular definition of “social justice.”

Brooklyn College’s decision to stop pressuring history professor Robert “KC” Johnson is a “crucial victory for freedom of speech and academic freedom,” declared the public-interest group that came to his defense, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE.

FIRE said the college “surrendered” just a few days after the group began defending Johnson, ensuring the professor would “not be subjected to an unconstitutional inquisition into his views.”

Since May, Johnson has spoken out against the use of “dispositions” theory by Brooklyn College’s School of Education. The theory requires that education students’ commitment to “social justice” be evaluated along with academic performance.

In an article in the magazine Inside Higher Ed, Johnson contended its use constitutes an ideological litmus test and invites viewpoint discrimination.

But dozens of instructors in the school’s Department of Education demanded in a June 20 letter that Johnson cease his “attacks.”

FIRE also said it’s alleged that at an “emergency academic freedom meeting” of the faculty union, it was said Johnson would face an official investigation by an “Integrity Committee.”

Johnson never received any notice of such an investigation, and the administration did not confirm or deny its existence.

The professor, after facing a similar “secret” investigation during a 2002 tenure, was not very confident his freedom of speech would be protected, FIRE said.

“Professors certainly have a right to disagree about pedagogy,” said David French, president of FIRE. “It would have been both illegal and immoral for Brooklyn College to allow KC Johnson to face another official inquisition. Thankfully, this dire outcome has been averted.”

In a letter to Brooklyn College President Christoph M. Kimmich Aug. 18, FIRE demanded the school stop any investigation of Johnson and requested a response by Sept. 2.

No response came, but shortly after FIRE publicized the case, it received a letter from Kimmich certifying Johnson faces no investigation.

“[U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis] Brandeis was absolutely right that ‘sunlight is the best disinfectant,'” said Greg Lukianoff, FIRE’s director of legal and public advocacy. “As soon as Brooklyn College started to feel the heat from the media, the administration finally affirmed that KC Johnson’s rights would be respected.”

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Schools: Brooklyn College, City University of New York Cases: Brooklyn College: Possible Investigation of Professor’s Expression