FIRE Intervenes after UIUC Professor Dismissed, Highlighting Violation of Academic Freedom

By on July 16, 2010

Dr. Kenneth Howell, an adjunct professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), was not rehired by the university after a student complained in an e-mail to the department chair that Dr. Howell was "inflammatory and downright insensitive" in his class on Catholicism. Howell had sent an e-mail to the students in his class comparing what he described as Catholic and utilitarian criteria for moral judgments about sexual conduct. The complaining student, who was not enrolled in Dr. Howell’s class, stated that the e-mail was "absurd" and constituted "hate speech." Because he was let go from his university position, Dr. Howell also was let go from his position at the campus Catholic Newman Center.

Howell’s case strikes at the core issue of academic freedom for professors and, as such, has received a lot of attention in the press. One article, "University of Illinois Instructor Fired Over Catholic Beliefs," details that an associate dean at UIUC said that Howell’s e-mails "violate university standards of inclusivity, which would then entitle [UIUC] to have him discontinue his teaching arrangement with [UIUC]." This is despite a provision in UIUC’s Academic Staff Handbook that recognizes that faculty "are entitled to freedom in the classroom in developing and discussing according to their areas of competence the subjects that they are assigned."

detailed Inside Higher Ed (IHE) article captures the thoughts of various professors and First Amendment advocates on Howell’s case. Jordan Lorence, senior legal counsel at the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), lamented that silencing Dr. Howell detracts from the marketplace of ideas that a university is supposed to provide its students:

The bigger picture problem is that this is teaching studentsthe next generation of American leadersthat you don’t respond to opinions you disagree with with more debate, but by feeling offended and then complaining to some school authority so that the person is disciplined in some manner and censored. We are teaching students they can have an environment cleansed of opinions that they disapprove. That’s shocking.

ADF is considering representing Howell and in the meantime has sent UIUC a letter that decries that the university "would succumb to such a ‘heckler’s veto,’ jettison principles of academic freedom, and violate Dr. Howell’s First Amendment freedoms" in firing him.

Ann H. Franke, a lawyer with expertise in legal issues for universities, commented to IHE that "[a] public institution effectively can fire an adjunct for no reason, but you can’t fire an adjunct for a wrong reason." The case also raises important due process questions, particularly for adjunct professors, who are often simply not rehired without explanation. Adjunct professors in situations like Dr. Howell’s need to be afforded an opportunity to defend their speech and vindicate their rights. 

FIRE agrees with Lorence and Franke. Students cannot simply cry "hate speech" whenever they hear opinions with which they disagree. And universities cannot fire (or not rehire) faculty members for engaging in their constitutionally protected right to express views that might not be popular on campus. Further, adjunct faculty do not have diminished First Amendment rights because of their employment status. Adverse employment action against an adjunct faculty member, when that action is due to the professor’s protected expression, violates the professor’s First Amendment rights.

Others, however, have missed the mark in their understanding of the case. In the IHE article, Ayesha N. Khan of Americans United for Separation of Church and State characterized Howell’s e-mail and teachings as "preaching." But she fails to recognize that the course Dr. Howell taught was on Catholicism and that he told students they did not have to accept the views of the Catholic Church as right. To the contrary, he insisted in his e-mail that students should make up their own minds.

Currently, a UIUC faculty committee is reviewing the university’s decision not to rehire Dr. Howell to determine whether it violated his academic freedom. FIRE has now written UIUC’s chancellor asking him to uphold Howell’s rights immediately and to make UIUC a place where rigorous debatenot unilateral stifling of unpopular opinionsflourishes. 

Stay tuned for more coverage of this case.

Schools: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Cases: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign: Professor Punished for Teaching about Catholic Thought in Course about Catholic Thought