A college professor in Georgia is whirling in confusion right now, reprimanded and apparently threatened with termination without any specific charges, hearings or evidence of wrongdoing – only the school administration’s allegation that he "offended" someone.
The troubles for Professor Thomas Thibeault of East Georgia College seem to have begun during an Aug. 5 faculty sexual harassment training seminar, when he questioned the assertion – as he understood it – being presented by Mary Smith, the school’s vice president for legal affairs, that the feelings of the offended constituted proof of offensive behavior.
"What provision is there in the sexual harassment policy to protect the accused against complaints which are malicious or … ridiculous?" Thibeault asked.
According to Thibeault’s description of the events, Smith replied, "There is no provision in the policy. I must emphasize that if the person feels offended then the incident must be reported to the college authorities."
"So there is no protection against a false accusation?" Thibeault pressed.
"No," Smith is said to have responded.
"Then the policy itself is flawed," commented Thibeault.
Two days later, a police chief was waiting to escort Thibeault off campus. The professor, under the circumstances, believed he was fired.
Then in subsequent weeks, Thibeault was informed his contract would not be renewed for the following year and that a faculty committee had concluded he violated the college’s sexual harassment policy. For doing what, for saying what, Thibeault still doesn’t know.
Thibeault shortly thereafter contacted the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which immediately fired off a letter of protest.
Said FIRE spokesman Adam Kissel, "The professor still has not received anything in writing detailing what he is accused of doing. … If professors can’t engage in vigorous debate on college campuses, who can?"
But the letter from FIRE to the school got down to business:
"The Supreme Court has explicitly held on numerous occasions that speech cannot be restricted simply because it offends people. In ‘Street v. New York,’ 394 U.S. 576, 592 (1969), the court held that ‘[i]t is firmly settled that under our Constitution the public expression of ideas may not be prohibited merely because the ideas are themselves offensive to some of their hearers.’ In ‘Papish v. Board of Curators of the University of Missouri,’ 410 U.S. 667, 670 (1973), the court held that ‘the mere dissemination of ideas – no matter how offensive to good taste – on a state university campus may not be shut off in the name alone of "conventions of decency,"’" it warned the school.
School officials declined to enter the conversation.
"Since this matter is an ongoing personnel mater, I cannot discuss it," said school president John Black via e-mail.
FIRE officials said Thibeault was notified Oct. 20 "that he had been reinstated due to lack of evidence."
But then Black issued the professor a "’reprimand’ for unspecified ‘offensive’ speech – again without presenting any notice, hearing, evidence or witnesses."
"This case is far from over," FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. "President Black has added to his blatant abuses of power by reprimanding Professor Thibeault for his speech, but never bothering to mention precisely what his offense was. Black has already retaliated against Thibeault by informing him that his contract would not be renewed after the spring semester. The bullying tactics at this college are breathtaking."
In the interim, FIRE reported, Black first wrote Thibeault that since he failed to resign dismissal proceedings were begun, then wrote that a committee was appointed to conduct an inquiry, then said Thibeault had been suspended, not terminated.
"EGC and President Black have utterly failed to meet their constitutional and moral obligation to respect freedom of speech, academic freedom, and due process," Kissel said. "Black has punished protected speech without any due process whatsoever, and he has threatened further disciplinary action if someone else merely sends in a complaint. Meanwhile, he has not lifted his retaliatory decision not to rehire Thibeault for the next academic year."