Incoming Boston University (BU) professor Saida Grundy came under fire this weekend for several tweets she posted on her personal Twitter account in which she named white males as the central problem of American colleges. Boston University spokesman Colin Riley initially spoke out in defense of Grundy’s freedom of speech, but subsequently condemned her views, reportedly under pressure from alumni. Meanwhile, BU’s policies both promise freedom of speech and restrict protected expression, leaving students and professors at risk of being punished for expression similar to Grundy’s at the whim of campus administrators.
The University of Massachusetts Amherst student who reposted the tweets on SoCawlege.com expressed concern that Grundy is “unqualified to grade [white males’] work as [she] clearly demonstrate[s] some kind of special bias against them.” As news spread, alumni have also condemned Grundy’s employment at BU and committed not to donate to the university in the future.
Anyone may criticize Grundy, and it is certainly within the spirit of free expression to challenge her tweets. But BU would need more than the expression of disfavored ideas in order to discipline a professor—evidence that she has actually discriminated against white males in her classroom, for instance.
Fox News relayed Riley’s initial statement on Saturday: “Professor Grundy is exercising her right to free speech and we respect her right to do so.” Refusing to take action against Grundy is consistent with BU’s Faculty Handbook, which says that when a “faculty member speaks or writes as a citizen, he or she should be free from institutional censorship or discipline.”
Following the public outcry over Grundy’s tweets, Riley added to his previous statement on the matter: “The University does not condone racism or bigotry in any form and we are deeply saddened when anyone makes such offensive statements.” Thankfully, he also emphasized that “the opinions expressed by Dr. Grundy, in what were seemingly private electronic messages, constitutes her opinion and we must recognize her right to have that opinion whether or not we agree.”
Sadly, it is noteworthy these days when a college responds to controversial speech by reaffirming the speaker’s right to express him- or herself. Several colleges have recently taken swift action against students for expression deemed to be racist, and FIRE has seen professors punished for posts made to their personal Twitter accounts before.
While BU has so far responded better than some of its peers have in similar situations, FIRE’s Robert Shibley explained to Fox News why BU’s response in this case is insufficient to protect freedom of expression on campus:
“Professor Grundy should and must have the freedom to publicly express her opinions on controversial topics. Unfortunately, though, [she] could be punished if she were to send such tweets through the BU computer network, as the university bans ‘transmitting … offensive’ material,” Robert Shibley … told FoxNews.com.
“In addition, if she were a student, she could also potentially be punished for violating policies banning ‘bigotry, hatred, and intolerance,’ and for not expressing her opinion ‘in good taste and decency.’ … [BU] should eliminate these policies so that it can defend every student and faculty member’s right to free speech – not just Professor Grundy’s.”
As always, FIRE would be happy to help the university revise its policies to bring them in line with its advertised commitments to free speech.