Oklahoma Professor’s First Amendment Rights Still Under Threat

March 23, 2000

PHILADELPHIA, PA– In a case that illustrates the threat to liberty posed by political correctness, a professor at the University of Oklahoma was the target of more than twenty sexual harassment complaints filed with the University of Oklahoma’s affirmative action office as a result of a letter that he wrote to the student newspaper. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has adopted Professor David Deming’s case. FIRE is working closely with the Washington-based Center for Individual Rights, a public interest legal foundation now serving as Deming’s counsel. Deming faced possible termination for daring to comment on an issue of national concern.

After an intolerable and chilling three-week delay, the University dismissed the charges against Deming. However, John T. Snow, the dean of Deming’s college, sent a letter that struck at the professor’s and the university’s freedom of thought and expression.

FIRE informed the University that unless it upholds Professor Deming’s academic freedom, it is in violation of the First Amendment to the Constitution and the principles of free speech, exposing itself to both shame and lawsuit for the denial of Deming’s constitutional rights. Deming, an associate professor of Geology and Geophysics, criticized an opinion column that stated: “Easy access to a handgun allows everyone in this country . . . to quickly and easily kill as many random people as they want.” A citizen who holds protected beliefs about the Second Amendment, Deming responded with a letter that stated: “[Her] easy access to a vagina enables her to quickly and easily have sex with as many random people as she wants . . . and spread venereal diseases.”

Parody and analogy all remain legal in this nation. Deming’s argument–that possession of something that can be misused does not justify criminalization or demonization–clearly confused the OU administration about rhetoric and about American liberty. The Dean of the College of Geosciences, John T. Snow, sent an alarming letter to Deming that excoriated him for expressing himself, accused him of lowering morale, and berated him for upsetting the president’s office by occasioning a large number of phone calls from media and alumni. In fact, of course, the protection of freedom at a public university is an honor and essential task, not a distraction. Would the University of Oklahoma threaten the status of professors who offended gun-owners or religious conservatives? The days of academic “McCarthyism” remain with us; the targets, of course, change with time. Ironically, Snow’s chilling letter directs Deming to “show due respect for the opinions of others.” Snow wrote to Professor Deming that dealing with his constitutional rights constituted “a non-critical issue,” distracting administrators and staff who “needed to be focusing on other matters more important to the University.” In fact, freedom and academic freedom are the most critical issues faced by a university. In an email a few days later, Snow informed Deming that it was “unclear” how the controversy would affect Deming’s professional career at the school.

Thor L. Halvorssen, FIRE’s Executive Director, noted that the fact that judicial proceedings against Deming were even considered illustrates small-minded, partisan anti-intellectualism at its worst: “It shows just how far the forces of ‘political correctness’ have strayed from essential notions of academic freedom.”

FIRE has asked University of Oklahoma President David Boren if the First Amendment is still in effect at OU. As chronicled in The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses, by FIRE’s codirectors, Alan Charles Kors and Harvey A. Silverglate, Boren, in 1996, publicly boasted of his “long record of being very protective of the First Amendment.” This past October, Boren boldly celebrated freedom of speech on “National Coming Out” day when a banner belonging to a campus gay group was torn down. “This kind of behavior is completely contrary to the values of our university,” Boren said. “When the rights of free speech and free expression for any members of our community are violated, we are all diminished.” Boren’s office was fully aware of the numerous sexual harassment complaints filed against Deming, but he has yet to show that his concern with constitutional rights and freedom of expression apply to this professor. Boren was correct in his theory, however: when anyone’s rights of freedom of expression are violated, we indeed are all diminished.

Halvorssen emphasized that “On a public campus the First Amendment guarantees academic freedom by granting constitutional protection to such expressions of opinion. Unless these principles are upheld at the University of Oklahoma in Prof. Deming’s case, the University has no right to call itself a liberal arts institution of higher learning.”

The mission of FIRE is to defend and sustain individual rights at America’s increasingly repressive and partisan colleges and universities. These rights include freedom of speech, legal equality, due process, religious liberty, and the sanctity of conscience.

Schools: University of Oklahoma Cases: University of Oklahoma: Use of Sexual Harassment Allegations to Suppress Protected Speech