Writing Instructor Loses Job for Discussing Iraq War in Class

January 27, 2004

WINSTON-SALEM, NC—Forsyth Technical Community College (FTCC) writing instructor Elizabeth Ito has been dismissed for taking a brief part of her class to discuss the war in Iraq. Ito criticized the Iraq war in a writing class on March 28, 2003, while the ground invasion was still underway. Her remarks, which later served as the basis for a writing assignment, lasted only ten minutes, but as a result administrators at the college decided not to renew her contract. FTCC President Gary Green subsequently ignored a request from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), sent on Ito’s behalf, for an explanation of the college’s actions.

“Debate and candor will not long survive in the American classroom if instructors have reason to fear for their jobs if they express their opinions,” said Greg Lukianoff, director of legal and public advocacy for FIRE. “FTCC’s actions will chill the free speech of faculty members who must now worry if they make the slightest digression from what administrators believe is relevant in the classroom. If colleges and universities are to err, they should err on the side of free speech.”

Elizabeth Ito, then in her first year of teaching at this public community college, began her writing class on March 28, 2003, by voicing her opposition to the war in Iraq. Concerned that she may not have given the subject a balanced hearing and wishing to take advantage of an educational opportunity, Ito provided the students with a forum in which to share their opinions about the war as part of an anonymous critical writing assignment during the next class meeting.

Ito was then called into a meeting with her supervisor, Department Chair Susie Keener, and John Slade, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. They told Ito they had received complaints from two students about her statement and demanded a promise that she would never again discuss the war in class. Ito refused to make this promise but stated that she would not bring up the topic herself. Dean Slade rejected this compromise and placed a disciplinary letter in Ito’s file. The letter accused her of “insubordination” yet indicated that Slade considered the matter “resolved.” Ito did not discuss the war again in class.

Following this incident, however, Keener and Slade sharply criticized Ito’s teaching in her April 8 evaluation, even though an evaluation as recent as March 6 had been overwhelmingly positive. On May 15, Ito received a letter saying that FTCC would not renew her contract for the following year. Ito appealed this decision to the Personnel Committee of the FTCC Board of Trustees, and then to a full session of the Board—a process that required several months.

FIRE’s Lukianoff noted, “FTCC is punishing an instructor for expressing her political views. The administration seems to be arguing that Ito’s speech was not relevant to her writing class, but too narrow a definition of relevance is potentially lethal to debate and discussion. Free speech and academic freedom require breathing space to prosper, and taking away an instructor’s job for one incident in which she expressed her beliefs threatens to suffocate classroom speech.”

FIRE wrote FTCC President Gary Green on November 12, 2003, expressing its concern about the college’s treatment of Ito. FIRE also reminded the college that part of its stated mission is to “prepare globally competent citizens”—a difficult task if professors may not discuss global issues in classes that depend on open discussion without punishment.

President Green did not respond to FIRE’s letter, instead choosing to explain FTCC’s actions in a public statement posted on FTCC’s website. Green accused Ito of, among other things, “a lack of competence.” The college could provide no support for this accusation, however, and the statement was eventually removed from FTCC’s website.

On December 18, Ito’s final appeal was heard by the full Board of Trustees, which voted to uphold the decision not to renew Ito’s contract. The Board made its decision in a closed meeting that a North Carolina expert called “not proper” in light of the state’s open-meetings law.

Lukianoff concluded, “Academia’s definition of what is and is not relevant for class discussion must not be overly narrow. There is also the matter of legal equality: Should every science professor who spent class time reflecting upon global politics on September 11, 2001, as so many did, lose his or her job? Common sense says, ‘Of course not.’ Elizabeth Ito’s case is no different.”

Although Ito has lost her final appeal to college authorities, she is currently considering whether to take legal action against FTCC. FIRE continues to support Ito and all other college and university teachers who are faced with unduly harsh restrictions on campus speech and calls upon lovers of liberty everywhere to write or call FTCC President Gary Green to protest the college’s unfair and illiberal treatment of Ito.

UPDATE: N.C. Professor Fired for “Disloyalty” Remains Punished

Last February, FIRE revealed the story of Professor Gale Isaacs of Shaw University, the former chairwoman of the Allied Health department of this private university in Raleigh, NC. Professor Isaacs was fired for “faithlessness in and disloyalty to” then-university President Talbert O. Shaw after she co-authored a letter calling for his resignation at the end of 2002. In addition to firing Prof. Isaacs, Shaw punished Shaniqua Bizzell, a student, by expelling her without a hearing for reading Isaacs’s letter aloud in the student union building. While President Shaw has since stepped down, the legacy of his shameful behavior persists. The unconscionable punishment of Professor Isaacs remains in force despite continuing attempts by FIRE to see the punishments rescinded. North Carolinians should be aware of the many abuses being committed in their state’s institutions of higher education.

FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, freedom of expression, freedom of conscience, and due process on our nation’s campuses. Please visit www.thefire.org to read more.

CONTACT:

Greg Lukianoff, Director of Legal and Public Advocacy, FIRE: 215-717-3473; greg@thefire.org

Forsyth Technical Community College:

Gary M. Green, President: 336-734-7201; ggreen@forsyth.cc.nc.us

Cynthia A. Bioteau, Vice President, Instructional Services: 336-734-7203; cbioteau@forsyth.cc.nc.us

John R. Slade, Jr., Dean, Arts and Sciences Division: 336-734-7251; jslade@forsyth.cc.nc.us

Susie Keener, Department Chair, Humanities & Communications: 336-734-7390; skeener@forsyth.cc.nc.us

Shaw University:

Clarence G. Newsome, President: 919-546-8300; cnewsome@shawu.edu

Schools: Forsyth Technical Community College Cases: Forsyth Technical Community College: Dismissal of Professor for Criticizing Iraq War