Michigan State Suspends Prof Without Hearing for In-Class Political Remarks

By September 6, 2013

A video uploaded to Campus Reform’s YouTube account Tuesday shows a segment of Michigan State University Professor William Penn’s “Literatures, Cultures, Identities” course that has resulted in his suspension from teaching. The video, recorded August 29, includes political commentary critical of Republicans and runs for nearly 10 minutes. Inside Higher Ed reports that “Penn remains a paid member of the faculty … and no decision has been made as to when he will return to the classroom.” But worryingly, “[a] Michigan State spokesman said he was unaware of plans for … a hearing” to determine whether Penn should have been disciplined—a question that could depend on whether the speech was germane to the course topic.

Inside Higher Ed spoke with FIRE’s Will Creeley to clarify some First Amendment basics:

Creeley … said in an e-mail: “As FIRE has long maintained, students do not possess a general ‘right not to be offended’ on campus—and that includes within the classroom. Federal courts have made clear for decades that public institutions like Michigan State University may not privilege ‘civility’ over the First Amendment.”

Academic freedom needs “breathing room,” and free speech in the classroom should be protected when it is germane to the subject being taught, he said. “That determination is properly made by Professor Penn’s academic peers.”

Writing for Popehat, Ken White states that the case demonstrates the frustrating fact that some “[p]eople who nominally favor freedom of expression will drop it like a hot coal when their political biases are aroused.”

In remarks to Inside Higher Ed, the American Association of University Professors also stressed the importance of conducting a hearing before subjecting a professor to disciplinary action:

Greg Scholtz, director of academic freedom, tenure and governance for the [AAUP], said only an elected body of Penn’s fellow professors could determine whether or not his speech constituted misconduct or incompetence warranting a “severe sanction,” such as suspension from teaching, according to AAUP policy.

FIRE will continue to monitor the situation.

Schools: Michigan State University