Standing Up for a Professor’s Right to Free Speech, Even While Disagreeing!

By on December 19, 2012

Protecting controversial or offensive speech is what the First Amendment is all about. After all, no one tries to censor speech that they like. FIRE’s core mission is the defense of students and faculty from censorship, and as defenders of free speech on campus, we often defend the rights of people who have said things that others find inflammatory, even though FIRE takes no position on the speech in question. Since there’s no shortage of controversial speech on campus, you can imagine we’re pretty busy. That’s why we’re so appreciative when others join our cause and highlight threats to free speech at colleges and universities.

Today, I am pleased to point to a great example of First Amendment advocacy by our friend Ken at Popehat. In a post today titled "Professor Loomis and the NRA: A Story In Which EVERYONE Annoys Me," Ken demonstrates how the principle of free speech demands the defense of even speech one might not agree with personally. 

Ken criticizes the tone of University of Rhode Island associate professor of history Erik Loomis’ recent tweets condemning the NRA in the wake of the tragic murders at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. 

(Quick background: Loomis tweeted that the National Rifle Association’s policies make them responsible for the murders, that NRA leaders should be jailed for their policy advocacy, and that he wants NRA president "Wayne LaPierre’s head on a stick." Loomis has been reportedly questioned by police and hauled into a meeting with his dean, and has received death threats. FIRE is looking into the situation.)

But importantly, Ken sharply criticizes those who have sought to have Loomis fired or jailed for his statements. Ken writes:

I support, without qualification, people writing about Professor Loomis. I find his expression contemptible. But I also find the efforts to get him fired or arrested contemptible, and I find it highly regrettable that some blogs are, at the most charitable interpretation, acting as smirking spectators to that effort. The effort is not without cost, even if neither the police nor the University take action. Trying to get a professor fired for clearly protected speech promotes and contributes to the culture of censorship in higher education that FIRE fights and that Greg Lukianoff exposed persuasively in his recent book "Unlearning Liberty." Trying to get Loomis fired contributes to a culture in which people are disciplined for reading a book about the defeat of the Klan because coworkers find it "harassing" or threatened with disciplinary proceedings for putting up a Firefly poster or prohibited from using signs at protest because OMG 9/11. Calling the cops based on clearly protected hyperbole promotes and encourages a law enforcement culture that does things like launching "cyberbullying" investigations based on satirical criticism, nudging us further towards the theoretical British zero-point at which old men get questioned by the police for putting rather mild expressions of atheism in their windows.

Well said. Imagine how great it would be if everyone was willing share Ken’s commitment to protecting speech they found offensive, choosing to answer with more speech rather than calls for censorship. Thanks for the plug, Ken, and keep up the good work. 

Schools: University of Rhode Island Cases: University of Rhode Island: Professor’s Anti-Gun Tweets Deemed Threatening