CHICAGO, May 16, 2012—A professor has filed a free speech lawsuit against Purdue University Calumet after the university punished him in the wake of his remarks about Muslims on Facebook. The PUC Muslim Student Association and several students and faculty members had filed harassment complaints against professor Maurice Eisenstein after he criticized moderate Muslims who he believed had not condemned “radical Muslim” terrorism in Nigeria. Two faculty members had also filed retaliation complaints against Eisenstein, who came to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for help.
“This is not the first time and it won’t be the last time we will see a university punish a student or professor for constitutionally protected speech on Facebook,” said FIRE President Greg Lukianoff. “Professors at public universities should not have to go to court to defend their free speech rights.”
Eisenstein’s ordeal began on November 6, 2011, when he posted a photo on Facebook of “Christians killed by a radical Muslim group” in Nigeria two days earlier, writing: “Where are the ‘moderate’ Muslims['] reaction[s] to this? Oh, I forgot they are still looking at the earth as flat according to the idiot Mohammad [sic], may his name be cursed.” In mid-November, faculty members, students, and the PUC Muslim Student Association filed harassment and discrimination complaints against Eisenstein due to the Facebook comments and unspecified concerns about his teaching. The university’s investigation dragged on for months.
FIRE first wrote PUC Chancellor Thomas L. Keon in January, explaining that Eisenstein’s speech was protected by the First Amendment and did not reach the threshold of discriminatory harassment. Keon replied on February 14 declining to discuss the case, and the investigation continued. On February 22, Keon wrote Eisenstein informing him that he had not been found guilty in any of the nine complaints.
Keon, however, found Eisenstein guilty of “retaliation” for two isolated comments. In one, Eisenstein had written in an email to the local Jewish Federation that “I consider anything from [one of the faculty accusers] to be in and of itself cursed and therefore untouchable.”
FIRE challenged the retaliation findings in a second letter to Keon on March 5. FIRE cited the Supreme Court’s statements in Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railway v. White (2006) that “An employee’s decision to report discriminatory behavior cannot immunize that employee from those petty slights or minor annoyances that often take place at work and that all employees experience” and that antidiscrimination law “does not set forth ‘a general civility code for the American workplace.’”
Eisenstein appealed the retaliation findings, but on April 5 his appeal was denied. Eisenstein filed a lawsuit last week against PUC, the two faculty complainants, and others for violating his First Amendment rights.
“Eisenstein’s colleagues ganged up on him to punish him for his protected expression,” said FIRE Vice President of Programs Adam Kissel. “The best remedy for ‘bad’ speech is more speech, not this pattern of wild prosecution.”
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, freedom of expression, academic freedom, due process, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at thefire.org.