Yesterday, FIRE sent a letter to Kirkwood Community College’s president explaining why the First Amendment does not permit the Iowa college to penalize professor Jeff Klinzman, notwithstanding public pressure in the wake of media reports on his self-identification as “antifa” and his past social media comments about President Trump and Christians. For a shorter explanation of why the First Amendment applies, check out our story from yesterday; for the in-depth version, read our letter.
The Gazette, a regional newspaper out of Cedar Rapids, has now added interviews with both Klinzman and Kirkwood’s president, Lori Sundberg. The latter reveals a reckless approach to exposing the college (and Sundberg personally) to liability for violating the First Amendment and, plainly, contempt for the rule of law.
Klinzman says he received a phone call from Kirkwood’s administration Friday, after the story went viral, and that administrators “made it clear — you can resign or we’ll terminate you.” Klinzman says:
They talked about how this had broken on Fox and they were getting thousands of complaints. They were getting threats. People were threatening to burn down the college. They said, “We can’t have you coming back this semester.”
The Gazette reports Kirkwood president Sundberg “confirmed that account” to them, stating that the removal was “based on threats to the college resulting from Klinzman’s comments and their publicity.”
Sundberg went on to tell the Gazette:
As of Thursday of last week, he was going to be teaching Monday, and we were well aware of the content[.] There is no evidence that he has espoused those views in his class. But then once the news story ran and we had this outcry from the public and what we perceived as threats — at the end of the day for me, if I’m found legally wrong on this, I can live with that. But if I make a wrong decision regarding the safety of the students, and he’s harmed, our students are harmed, or other faculty are harmed, I can’t live with that.
Sundberg’s comments add important context. It also reveals why the path chosen by Kirkwood is troubling and ultimately indefensible.
First, Sundberg tacitly concedes that Klinzman’s speech is protected by the First Amendment. She says there was no evidence Klinzman had shared “those views” in his class. Further, the administration, which had already looked into the Facebook comments, was not planning to take action against Klinzman on Thursday, when the story first broke.
Second, it’s clear that Kirkwood’s decision rests not on a safety risk caused by Klinzman, but on threats from Klinzman’s critics.
That controversial statements by faculty members or students may become a lightning rod for criticism by the media, the public, or lawmakers is not a new feature of campus life. Other institutions, public and private, have encountered social media storms — which often, if not always, bring with them malcontents issuing true threats, veiled threats, or hyperbolic rhetoric — with varying degrees of success.
There is little doubt that institutions face difficult choices in responding to concerns for public and student safety, but public institutions like Kirkwood have a First Amendment obligation to avoid placing that burden on the speaker as an expedient shortcut to ending the controversy. Doing so capitulates to the heckler’s veto. As the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit has explained, the “heckler’s veto will nearly always be susceptible to being reimagined and repackaged as a means for protecting the public, or the speaker himself, from actual or impending harm.”
Adoping Kirkwood’s position would mean that the First Amendment rights of its faculty members or students are rendered meaningless when discovered by online audiences who may be hostile to the views of the professor or student and willing to make threats. As the Supreme Court explained decades ago, this stance imperils “views unpopular with bottle throwers.” It makes little difference whether the bottle thrower is literally at the university gate or online.
That does not mean Kirkwood should ignore actual safety risks. FIRE is not in a position to judge whether the threats invoked by Kirkwood’s administration are credible. As always, universities should be as transparent as law enforcement deems advisable about threats to public safety, especially when invoking public safety as a justification for silencing campus speech.
And Kirkwood has taken those threats seriously: Per the college’s statement, the institution has involved local law enforcement and are increasing the presence of security on campus. Those are steps Kirkwood can take without chilling First Amendment rights.
But taking steps to terminate Klinzman — and it’s clear that his termination was a foregone conclusion — does not credibly advance public safety. Indeed, it does the opposite by rewarding those willing to deploy threats or violent rhetoric. Behavior that is rewarded will be repeated — if not at Kirkwood, then on campuses elsewhere. President Sundberg believes this isn’t a threat to freedom of speech because Klinzman can find some other forum in which to speak; it just can’t be the forum over which she presides. That’s an abdication of legal responsibility dressed up as a defense of safety, and it deserves strong criticism.
Kirkwood’s illiberal response is antithetical to black-letter First Amendment law and inconsistent with its educational mission. Sundberg risks entangling the institution in years of expensive litigation, with little chance of success, for an action that does not meaningfully protect student safety, the justification proffered for terminating Klinzman. It exposes not only Kirkwood to legal liability, but Sundberg personally. She, and Kirkwood, would be wise to reverse course while they still can.