A University of Chicago student’s tweet criticizing a returning course has led to death threats and harassing messages toward the course’s professor, resulting in the postponement of the course due to safety concerns.
Last winter, professor Rebecca Journey, a teaching fellow in anthropology at UChicago, led a seminar that “examines the problem of whiteness through an anthropological lens drawing from classic and contemporary works of critical race theory.” The seminar was appropriately named “The Problem of Whiteness.” Due to its success, the same seminar was added to the course offerings for the upcoming winter quarter. UChicago student Daniel Schmidt — who has not taken the seminar — publicly decried it.
Schmidt took to Twitter to denounce the seminar, calling it an example of the “anti-white hate” he claims to be documenting on campus. Responses to Schmidt’s tweet were mixed: Some considered the seminar racist and expressed their dissatisfaction toward UChicago and Journey, while others called on Schmidt to take the seminar himself, telling him to see what it’s actually about before complaining. Just a few days later, Schmidt tweeted a screenshot indicating the seminar was canceled, calling this development “a huge victory.”
But Schmidt was wrong. The seminar wasn’t canceled. Journey voluntarily rescheduled it to the upcoming spring term.
FIRE is pleased to see that the seminar is not canceled permanently, as the cancellation of an already offered course could be a violation of a professor’s academic freedom. Nevertheless, we are still concerned that Journey felt the need to delay conducting the seminar. According to her communications with The Chicago Maroon, Journey received over 80 harassing emails, including “death threats, veiled threats, and threats of sexual assault, as well as all kinds of misogynistic, racist, and antisemitic languages [sic].” Journey wanted to give UChicago “more time to implement appropriate safety measures” for both herself and her students before the course begins.
FIRE recognizes the right of individuals to criticize “The Problem of Whiteness” seminar — or to express any opinion about it. However, threats and actual harassment cross the line into unprotected speech territory: And that, we cannot support.
We applaud UChicago for keeping in tune with its academic freedom principles and making Journey’s safety a priority, and we hope it remains vigilant in supporting its professor through teaching-related controversies in the future.
The UChicago Global Studies department, under which the course is taught, has since affirmed its commitment to academic freedom, and a university spokesperson made clear to The Chicago Maroon that it “will continue to defend the right of faculty to establish curricula and courses.” UChicago also took steps to protect Journey’s digital identity and develop a personal safety plan.
We applaud UChicago for keeping in tune with its academic freedom principles and making Journey’s safety a priority, and we hope it remains vigilant in supporting its professor through teaching-related controversies in the future. All universities — even those that rank near the top of FIRE’s Free Speech Rankings — can continue to uplift a culture of academic freedom.
We hope to see a successful run of this course in the spring.