A concerning report out of Wisconsin suggests that administrators at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse (UW-L) have inappropriately pressured a professor there to apologize for sending her class an email critical of the government shutdown and to refrain from using “politically partisan language” in the future.
According to The Daily Caller, UW-L geography professor Rachel Slocum sent her class the following email:
Some of the data gathering assignment will be impossible to complete until the Republican/tea party controlled House of Representatives agrees to fund the government. The Census website, for example, is closed. Please do what you can on the assignment. Those parts that you’re unable to do because of the shutdown will have to wait until Congress decides we actually need a government. Please listen to the news and be prepared to turn in the assignment quickly once our nation re-opens.
Someone forwarded this email to an organization called Media Trackers, which in turn contacted the university’s chancellor, Joe Gow, for an explanation. This is where things get troubling. According to Media Trackers, Gow responded that he shared the organization’s concern over the “inappropriate use” of “overly partisan” language in an email to students. Then,
Gow immediately dispatched the Dean of the College Professor Slocum teaches in to investigate the email.
By late afternoon, Gow told Media Trackers, “I have just spoken to the College Dean, who has now called the professor, verified the authenticity of the note, pointed out the inappropriateness of the politically partisan language, and obtained the professor’s commitment to writing a follow-up apology to the class.”
For Gow and the Dean’s part they will “counsel the professor about the inappropriateness of using politically partisan language in classroom communications and discuss ways of ensuring that the students in this particular class do not feel uncomfortable holding and expressing political views that are different from their instructor’s.”
There are of course situations in which a professor’s politically partisan speech would be inappropriate and not protected: if a professor used significant class time for non-germane political rants, for example, or graded students poorly not on the quality of their work but rather on the students’ expression of dissenting political views. But unless there are facts not presented here, this does not sound like such a situation.
While Slocum’s email contains an expression of political opinion, that expression pertains directly to class-related information that she is communicating to her students: the fact that the government shutdown will impact their ability to complete a class assignment that required conducting research on government websites.
So by “investigating” and “counseling” this professor, what the university is essentially telling its faculty is that—even in communications wholly germane to their subject or to an assignment—their communications must be devoid of personal political opinion lest their protected speech make students who disagree feel “uncomfortable.”
It does not sound like this professor will actually be disciplined for engaging in speech that made one or more students uncomfortable—though FIRE has had many cases where such discipline was actually imposed. But the mere fact that the university launched an investigation, apparently asked the professor to apologize, and has promised to “counsel” her about her future classroom speech is certain to have a chilling effect not only on this professor’s speech but also on the speech of other professors at the university because the administration has made these statements publicly. As FIRE has said many times in the past, when the only thing at issue is protected speech, there is nothing to investigate.