Earlier this month, Montclair State University claimed that it had “never” hired Kevin Allred, a gender studies professor whose tweets expressing hope that someone might assassinate President Trump sparked criticism across conservative media outlets. Although Allred’s tweets were quite clearly protected by the First Amendment, Montclair State University is ignoring questions about its dubious claim — and retaliating against the director of the academic program Allred had been hired to work in.
As we explained in early August, Allred’s remarks were quite clearly protected by the First Amendment. If Montclair State University had, in fact, hired Allred, then it couldn’t terminate him for those remarks without running afoul of the First Amendment. Perhaps not enthralled with the notion of defending free speech, Montclair issued multiple statements to the media firmly claiming that Allred “has never been an employee of Montclair.” If he wasn’t an employee, then there are no First Amendment concerns.
But FIRE laid out evidence that the university had hired Allred, including giving him an official Montclair email address, adding him to the faculty listserv, specifying the courses he was to teach and asking him to prepare syllabi, and filling out tax forms intended for use by employees. FIRE wrote a letter to Montclair seeking an explanation.
In the several weeks that have followed, FIRE has received no response from Montclair to our letter. The university has offered no information or explanation to support its claim that it had not hired Allred, much less made any attempt to explain why Allred’s tweets were not protected by the First Amendment.
Instead, Montclair spent its time finding a scapegoat, removing Dr. Fawzia Afzal-Khan from her role as director of the program — even though it was her predecessor who had hired Allred.
Following this decision, Montclair is again ducking questions about the propriety of its response to the controversy:
In a statement to The Chronicle [of Higher Education], a Montclair State spokeswoman, Erika Bleiberg, didn’t directly address the change in the director position but did praise the credentials of Ms. Afzal-Khan, who remains as a professor. She has been at the New Jersey institution for nearly three decades.
“Dr. Fawzia Afzal-Khan is a well-respected member of the Montclair State University faculty and she has been well supported by the university in her academic and research endeavors,” Ms. Bleiberg said. “The provost requested that she return full-time to the faculty in her home department of English. This was simply a matter of assignment for the coming academic year, and that assignment includes an opportunity for Professor Afzal-Khan to teach in the program of gender, sexuality and women studies.” The university declined to comment further.
That doesn’t make much sense at all. As Afzal-Khan observed to the Chronicle, “Why would they want to get rid of me when I have done a bang-up job in the past?”
During a meeting Afzal-Khan believed was intended to address the need to hire new instructors, Montclair sang a different tune:
Instead, the meeting with Mr. Friedman and Kenneth Sumner, an acting associate provost, was to discuss her leaving the director position. She said she was told that she “hadn’t done anything wrong,” but that the university’s president, Susan A. Cole, had issued a “decree” following the media frenzy associated with Mr. Allred.
And there may be reason to believe that Montclair’s administration was looking for a scapegoat. After media outlets asked Montclair why Allred’s bio had been posted to the Montclair website if he had never been hired, Montclair responded that this was “an error made by a University employee[.]”
“The Montclair administration’s repeated obfuscation and diversion tactics are concerning,” said Ari Cohn, director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program. “Rather than reflecting on its unwise capitulation to an outrage mob at the expense of its faculty members’ rights, Montclair has spent its time digging itself into a deeper hole by retaliating against a decorated and respected program director. Unfortunately for Montclair, committing another unforced error will only intensify the public’s focus on its assault on faculty rights.”
Montclair would be wise to recommit itself to freedom of expression rather than finding another scapegoat after its latest blunder.