University of Oregon Suddenly Drops ASL Professor after Remark in Class; FIRE Intervenes

By on July 5, 2011

FIRE has asked University of Oregon (UO) President Richard Lariviere to reverse the damage to free speech and academic freedom that UO caused when it dropped American Sign Language (ASL) instructor Peter Quint in the middle of the term without a hint of due process, all because of a comment he made during class about students who were violating a class policy. 

Quint, who is deaf, had been appointed as an ASL instructor for the 2009-2010 academic year, and his appointment was renewed for 2010-2011, with a reasonable expectation of renewal for the coming year. A small number of students in his ASL 203 had been failing to follow the class policy stated on the syllabus, which was that "it is expected that all attempts at communication be made visually." Although he had taken steps to address the problem, they continued to violate the policy.

On May 4, Quint opened his ASL 203 class with a personal story meant to emphasize the need to be able to communicate across barriers and show respect in a "foreign" environment such as an ASL classroom. Quint related his experience in Pakistan when his ability to communicate with others in a foreign environment had helped him escape threats against his life. In an email to College of Education Dean Michael Bullis the next day, Quint explained that the story involved

a situation in Pakistan where I had to deal with a threat involving a group of Pashtun tribesmen, one of whom had a gun. It was all in reference to one of the goals of ASL classes; that is to create in students a strength of heart from active practice and involvement in a "foreign" environment. 

So, that was the context for what came next. Being deaf himself, Quint had made it clear to his students, both during lectures and in his syllabus, that respectful communication in class required that all communication be visible. Yet, later during that very class, some students again violated this policy. In frustration he expressed, "Do you want me to take a gun out and shoot you in the head so you understand what I am talking about? I had to practice being respectful in Pakistan otherwise I would have been shot. Can you practice the same respect here?"

Quint later emailed his students to apologize, but it was too late. College of Education Dean Michael Bullis emailed him later that day to inform him that he was investigating a complaint he had received about the remark and that Quint was "suspended from teaching" and was not to come to his class on May 5. Bullis also informed Quint that he would be visiting that class along with another supervisor. Indeed, Bullis did visit that class and took along two officers from UO’s Department of Public Safety. Although the students were interviewed, it quickly became clear that no crime had been committedwhich makes perfect sense because Quint’s statement was in no way a true threat. As we wrote in our letter last month:

Quint’s statement, while made in frustration, was germane to the topic of instruction and protected by his right to free speech in the classroom as part of his academic freedom. [...] Particularly noting its peaceful context, Quint’s statement does not come at all close to meeting the exacting legal definition of a "true threat" articulated by the Supreme Court in Virginia v. Black, 538 U.S. 343, 359 (2003), in which the Court held that only "those statements where the speaker means to communicate a serious expression of an intent to commit an act of unlawful violence to a particular individual or group of individuals" are outside the boundaries of First Amendment protection. It strains all credulity to think that any reasonable student would take Quint’s statement as a true threat to kill his students. 

Indeed, no charges of any kind resulted from the interviews.

Later in the day on May 5, however, Bullis notified Quint that he was officially "suspended from teaching all classes and should not come to campus." Bullis also told Quint that he would schedule a meeting with him to discuss the issue. Bullis never did. Instead he wrote Quint on May 11 to notify him that he would be placed on leave, with pay, until the end of his appointment on June 15, and that he would not be reappointed after that. Bullis also ordered him not to contact any students, faculty, or staff of UO, and terminated his UO computing privileges and email account.

Bullis’ disregard for Quint’s due process rights was simply appalling. As we point out in our letter:

Bullis did not identify any reason whatsoever for these severe punishments, nor did he mention or offer any of the due process protections afforded by the Oregon Administrative Rules (OAR) governing the punishment of non-tenured faculty members. Indeed, OAR 580-021-0320 et seq. set out a process that Bullis completely ignored: In Quint’s case, there was no "preparation of formal charges"; there was no "state[ment of] the facts" justifying any sanction; no notice of charges was provided to Quint; Quint was not provided the required notice "of the right to a formal hearing"; there apparently was no "written finding stating … that there is a clear and present danger" posed by Quint to justify an emergency suspension; and there was no formal hearing.

What’s more, UO made it impossible for Quint to prepare any kind of defense by forbidding him from entering the UO campus and ordering him not to contact any students or colleagues. Bullis even flatly rejected Quint’s offer to be available on campus to offer his perspective on the incident and to answer any questions.

Yet, while the due process failure here was pitiful, the key problem is the violation of Quint’s free speech and academic freedom in the classroom. A professor’s brief, relevant outburst about a violation of class policy cannot be punished without violating the professor’s rights. Beyond that, a professor needs breathing space around his speech rights so that he is not constantly looking over his shoulder in case someone complains about a stray remark. And it is a further violation of a professor’s rights to refuse to rehire him due to his protected expression, as in Quint’s case.

Since this case already has people talking at UO, UO must publicly acknowledge its grave errors in this case so that faculty and students can again feel that their protected expression is safe from official investigation and punishment. That also means that UO must reverse its punishment of Quint. Until then, academic freedom and free speech will not count for much at the University of Oregon. We have asked UO to respond by July 18, and we will keep you posted on further developments.

TAKE ACTION: Tell President Lariviere to reverse Peter Quint’s unjust punishment and uphold faculty rights at UO today!

Schools: University of Oregon Cases: University of Oregon: ASL Instructor Dropped Due to Classroom Comment