By Julie Wurth at The News-Gazette
URBANA — The Steven Salaita saga has landed the University of Illinois on a list it probably would rather not make.
The UI is included in the fourth annual “10 worst colleges for free speech” list published by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
The foundation criticized the UI for revoking a job offer to Salaita after he posted inflammatory tweets about Israel last summer. The decision sparked a nationwide debate over free speech and “civility” on college campuses and prompted boycotts by prominent academic groups.
But campus spokeswoman Robin Kaler argued that the vigorous debate about the decision proved that free speech is alive and well on campus.
“Over the past several months, members of the campus community have expressed a wide array of opinions on a hiring decision. This is the kind of free discussion that is
the bedrock of our institution and all of higher education,” the UI’s statement said.
“Anyone who has witnessed the vigorous and passionate debates that have taken place and are still taking place on our campus would appreciate that there is plenty of space for freedom of expression and opinion.”
Salaita had left a tenured position at Virginia Tech to accept a job with the UI’s American Indian Studies program when the job was withdrawn by campus administrators. Chancellor Phyllis Wise later issued a statement explaining that the campus would not tolerate “personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them.” That prompted critics to charge administrators were imposing a “speech code” on faculty. Wise has repeatedly said that was not her intent.
The UI Board of Trustees has upheld her decision and said recently it would not revisit the issue. Salaita is suing the university in federal court to get his job back.
Spokesman Nico Perrino said the UI was cited both because Salaita was “censored” for his personal tweets but also because the university “doubled down” with the email.
“Professors tweet personal opinions all the time,” Perrino said. “You don’t always see a job offer revoked for expressing their personal viewpoints.”
The nonprofit foundation says its defense of individual rights, freedom of expression, academic freedom and due process crosses the political spectrum.
The foundation criticized the UI in 2010 when it fired Kenneth Howell, a Catholic religion instructor, following his comments in the classroom and a lengthy email to students about natural law and homosexuality, which some found offensive. Howell was later rehired, though the UI dissolved its relationship with the Catholic Newman Center, which had been paying Howell’s salary.
This year’s “worst” list includes Georgetown University, for actions against the group “H*yas for Choice,” which supports abortion rights; and Marquette University’s “chilling campaign” to revoke a professor’s tenure because his private blog criticized a graduate instructor for suppressing views in the classroom, including one student’s opposition to same-sex marriage.
It also includes the University of Iowa, which denounced an art professor’s installation of a statue he intended to be anti-racist — a collage of newspaper headlines and images covering instances of racial violence printed on a robe and hood reminiscent of that of the Ku Klux Klan, as President Greg Lukianoff described it on his blog for The Huffington Post. Iowa President Sally Mason publicly apologized to students who felt “terrorized” by the artwork, he said.
“We’ve defended everyone from critics of same-sex marriage to PETA supporters. We’ve been on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian debate,” Perrino said. “We just defend the speech protected by the First Amendment.”
The list also makes reference to what the foundation calls “disinvitation season,” annual attempts by students or faculty to keep speakers they dislike from appearing on campus.
Not all of the institutions are colleges. The Department of Education is criticized for linking universities’ federal funding to an “unconstitutional speech code” regarding sexual harassment, according to Lukianoff. The ruling defines sexual harassment in a “shockingly broad way,” he said, prohibiting “any unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature,” including speech. Many colleges have since adopted unconstitutionally broad sexual harassment policies in response, he wrote.
On its website, the foundation gives the UI a “yellow light” rating for its policies on sexual harassment and tolerance, as well as its rules about protests and handing out leaflets, which it says could be interpreted as unconstitutional.
“College is the place where students should be encouraged to, as Yale promises, ‘think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable.’ Unfortunately, schools all across the country not only fall short on promises of free expression and academic freedom, but they also openly suppress constitutionally protected speech on campus by using tools such as speech codes to shut down forms of expression that might be uncomfortable, disagreeable, or even offensive to some members of the campus community,” Lukianoff wrote.
Full descriptions for each institution on the list are available at http://www.thefire.org/fire-announces-10-worst-colleges-free-speech-2014/
California State University, Fullerton
Chicago State University
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
University of Iowa
Modesto Junior College (Modesto, Calif.)
Kansas Board of Regents
U.S. Department of Education