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UCF is killing academic freedom to punish tweets it didn’t like

The University of Central Florida is trying to fire tenured professor Charles Negy for his speech, and if they succeed, it will undermine the concept of academic freedom. No UCF professor — and, if a court permits this termination, no professor in that jurisdiction — will be able to rely on it. 

To be clear, UCF does not want you to think Negy is being punished for his speech. They've written a 244-page report, which involved interviewing over 300 people over seven months about incidents covering more than 15 years, to convince you otherwise. 

But this is all either theater or self-delusion by UCF administrators who want to think they aren't motivated by a desire to censor a controversial professor. The entire process of preparing this report was motivated by complaints about Negy's tweets. Nobody interviews 300 people over seven months about incidents covering 15 years unless they’re desperate to find something, anything, to use against their target. UCF’s lack of sincerity in their investigation of Negy’s tweets — which, technically, was what they were investigating, based on the spurious allegation that Negy’s offensive tweets were required reading in his classes — is reflected in their decision to investigate allegations as far back as 2005, the year before Twitter was founded. 

No, nothing was going to stand between UCF and Negy’s termination: not the First Amendment, not due process, and not academic freedom. That's why Negy was set up to fail the nine hours of interrogation he went through and why UCF's conclusion rests on a nonsensical implementation of academic freedom so razor-thin as to be transparent. 

UCF will say it has shown great concern for Negy's speech. It will point out that most of the allegations raised in the report were determined to be either insufficiently established or constitutionally protected. That proves nothing; a censor is no more defended by the speech it didn't punish than an arsonist is defended by the buildings he didn't burn down. And here, UCF has filled 244 pages with the administrative equivalent of molotov cocktails, and will profess its reasonableness for only having thrown a few dozen. 

A few dozen is enough. I'll say it again: UCF is trying to fire Charles Negy for his speech, and is willing to burn down academic freedom to accomplish it. 

“The wheels are in motion” 

Negy is an associate professor of psychology at UCF, where he has taught since 1998 and had tenure since 2001. His focus areas are cross-cultural psychology and sexuality. He is a frequent critic of critical race theory and religion, and he discusses those topics with relative freedom on Twitter. 

“Although everyone has a right to their personal beliefs, we cannot allow that to cross over into our classrooms or into our workplace if it hurts people.”

This summer, Negy tweeted statements on race that offended some members of the public. On June 3, 2020, he tweeted: “Black privilege is real: Besides affirm. action, special scholarships and other set asides, being shielded from legitimate criticism is a privilege.” He continued: “Sincere question: If Afr. Americans as a group, had the same behavioral profile as Asian Americans (on average, performing the best academically, having the highest income, committing the lowest crime, etc.), would we still be proclaiming ‘systematic racism’ exists?”

The day before Negy’s tweets, UCF President Alexander Cartwright sent an email calling on the university “to be actively anti-racist.” Offended students called on the institution to take action with the hashtag #UCFfirehim

On June 4, UCF posted a press release signed by Cartwright, Interim Provost Michael Johnson, and Interim Chief Equity, Inclusion, and Diversity officer S. Kent Butler calling Negy’s tweets “not only wrong, but particularly painful.” It said the university was investigating “complaints alleging bias and unfair treatment in Dr. Negy’s classroom” and directed complaints to a website and phone number. 

On June 5, Cartwright hosted a “Virtual Conversation about Race and Unity.” He reiterated that Negy’s tweets were “abhorrent” and said, “Although everyone has a right to their personal beliefs, we cannot allow that to cross over into our classrooms or into our workplace if it hurts people.” The first question from a student was how to fire Negy. 

Johnson replied that if a faculty member is “offensive” in the classroom, “we have the capacity to act.” He further noted that action “will never be immediate because there’s a right of due process for employees of the university… nothing ever happens overnight when it’s a serious matter.” 

At one point, an incoming student asks “what is going to be done” about Negy. Butler replies, “the wheels are in motion in terms of what needs to happen in regards to that… believe that by the time you get on the campus as a freshman, it will have been dealt with.” 

At the time UCF’s employee was assuring students that Negy would be “dealt with,” the investigation was less than 24 hours old. It would take until January 13 of this year for that promise to be ultimately fulfilled: Negy was informed of UCF’s intent to fire him. 

“There’s a right of due process”

One of the most fundamental aspects of due process is the right to be told what you are alleged to have done in advance of a formal process. “Surprise” witnesses and evidence make for compelling courtroom television, but they undermine the fundamental fairness of the accused in an actual inquiry into wrongdoing. Ordinarily, providing notice is not a controversial proposition; but ordinarily, universities don’t direct tens of thousands of people to make complaints (including anonymous complaints, which make it difficult to respond by eliminating context) about a specific professor. UCF’s solution was just to not really try. 

UCF’s investigators had, in essence, started the investigation from a presumption of guilt.

Prior to discussing the laundry list of allegations raised in the 244-page report with Negy, the university provided him with a handful of “examples” of behavior they wanted to discuss with him. When Negy sought more specifics, so he could know what to prepare for, the university refused. Negy would ultimately be subjected to nine hours of interrogation, covering 15 years of teaching and writing.

Because Negy is a human and not a computer, he did not always perfectly remember everything he said during the past 15 years of his career, and occasionally, would make statements that did not align with the 37 hours of classroom recordings and untold emails they had reviewed (as one does, when asked to look into the question of whether a Twitter account was mandatory reading). For example, the report on page 52 points out that Negy said he never used the term “black privilege” in classes, but he had used it in an email to students on July 15, 2019.

The impact of this denial of due process was not cabined to the details the investigators withheld. According to the report, Negy’s “inconsistencies weakened his credibility and drew into question whether he was being truthful,” and the investigators would constantly refer back to his “inconsistencies” as a basis for discrediting his statements in general. 

By itself, the inadequate notice would violate due process by denying Negy a chance to collect exculpatory evidence and present it during the interrogation. The UCF investigation couples that wrongdoing with a second, independently broken assertion: that Negy’s recollections cannot be trusted because he would prefer not to be found guilty. A representative example, from page 82: “Respondent has motivation to lie (i.e. protect his status as a faculty member and his reputation) and has demonstrated inconsistency in some of the information provided during his OIE interview[.]”

The problem with such an inference, of course, is that all accused people have a “motivation to lie,” insofar as they don’t want to be found responsible; and that motivation is present even where the accused person is actually innocent of the accused behavior. UCF’s investigators had, in essence, started the investigation from a presumption of guilt. 

Other than punishing Negy for his speech, UCF lists two non-speech incidents. If either one was a sufficient basis for termination, the report would’ve been three pages long. 

First, there’s the allegation (outlined on pages 150 and 151) that in 2014, Negy failed to properly report to the institution that a student accused a TA of touching her inappropriately and trying to kiss her. For his part, Negy says the assault was never reported to him; he says the student told him she was uncomfortable with the TA, but categorically denied any physical contact took place. If that’s true, Negy didn’t know any assault happened, let alone think to report it. 

But since UCF has decided Negy is presumed to be unreliable, the report (which had no witness to the conversation other than the two people involved, with the one third party witness not responding to investigators) decided he was guilty. The student reported the assault to the university herself after her conversation with Negy. Negy maintains he had a subsequent phone call with administrators about the incident who questioned his handling at the time, and he explained the conversation to them. 

The other non-speech incident, outlined on pages 172 to the top of 174, is that Negy allegedly gave a health clinic in Peru a $17 “bribe” to falsely provide him with a certificate for two doses of a yellow fever vaccine. Negy told a story with some of these details in a chapter in his book, and the purpose was to illustrate corruption in some Latin American countries. But the point of the corruption story was that not only did he actually receive the vaccine (in one dose, instead of two; the $17 was not a “bribe,” but the cost of the shot), but that neither the vaccine or the certificate were actually required; he was being shaken down by an airline employee. So he paid a health clinic $17 for a yellow fever shot and a certification he didn’t need. 

If either or both of these incidents were the basis of terminating Negy, it wouldn’t implicate academic freedom at all, however unwise that decision would be on the basis of the evidence presented. But UCF is not relying on them. That would not appease the critics who want him punished for his speech.

“We cannot allow that… if it hurts people”

So after denying Negy due process or even a presumption of innocence, and launching an investigation into 15 years of professional life because some people didn’t like his tweets, was UCF able to find a basis for Negy’s termination? Yes — provided you don’t care about academic freedom. 

None of Negy’s tweets were considered a sufficient basis, of course, because they were all protected by the First Amendment. When reviewing comments made in the course, the Office of Inclusion and Equity — administrators, not faculty, let alone faculty from his department or credentialed in his discipline — decided which of Negy’s statements were germane to his pedagogy based on the course syllabi. The result is as nonsensical as the process would suggest, without the outcomes listed in pages 178 to 181 of the report.

According to the UCF investigation, it is protected speech to say that girl scouts preserve their virginity (p. 25), but not that women are attracted to men with money (p. 26). It is protected speech to say that Jesus was schizophrenic (p. 36), but unprotected to say that Jesus did not come into the world to die for everyone’s sins (p. 36). It’s protected to say that Islam is cruel and not a religion of peace (p. 107) but not that it is a toxic mythology (p. 35). 

When non-faculty administrators are deciding whether 15-year-old in-class faculty statements are germane to pedagogy, and firing tenured faculty (at least in part) on the basis of those statements, what is left of academic freedom?

Censorship envy and tenure 

In the past, tenure made the difference in whether a professor’s offensive speech led to being fired (like then-untenured Asheen Phansey, fired from Babson) or not (like tenured Randa Jarrar, still at Cal State-Fresno). In recent years, however, universities have shown an increased willingness to try to find ways to eliminate or work around tenure when a professor says something offensive. 

In 2015, Marquette University tried to remove tenure from professor John McAdams after he criticized a graduate student on his personal blog; a 2018 ruling from the Wisconsin Supreme Court forced the school to restore his position and tenure. In 2017, Drexel University promised tenured professor George Ciccariello-Maher he wouldn’t be fired for his speech; instead, they banned him from campus and kept him under investigation for nearly a year until he resigned voluntarily.

And ERI readers remember the recent story of Mike S. Adams at UNC-Wilmington, a tenured professor who took his own life in July after being forced into early retirement by an institution who cared more about appeasing an outrage mob than keeping its promises to faculty. 

The erosion in the value of tenure comes at the same time the practice of tenure itself is eroding. Among full-time faculty at tenure-granting institutions, the percentage of faculty with tenure declined from 54% in the 1999-2000 school year to 45% in 2018-2019. 

It may well be a coincidence that cancel culture would rise at the same time academic speech protection is declining — or it may be an opportunistic leveraging of an anti-speech cultural moment, motivated by censorship envy. When employees were being cancelled all summer, perhaps universities thought, “why shouldn’t we get to fire our employees to appease outrage mobs?” 

Even so, UCF’s effort here goes a step further than other universities have. Instead of freezing Negy out (like Drexel) or buying him out (like UNC-Wilmington), UCF is hoping that 244 pages of insufficient justifications for firing someone are a substitute for having one permissible reason. 

Protect that freedom when others attempt to restrict it

Negy is currently represented by Samantha Harris, a Senior Fellow at FIRE and counsel at the firm of Mudrick & Zucker. UCF’s conclusions will ultimately be for a court to review. But it doesn’t require a court to see that UCF has undermined its commitment to academic freedom in a way that should give every faculty member pause. 

The purpose of academic freedom is explained in the Chicago Statement, which UCF’s Faculty Senate adopted in 2018: 

In a word, the University’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed… [T]he University has a solemn responsibility not only to promote a lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation, but also to protect that freedom when others attempt to restrict it.

Instead, UCF implemented a process calculated to find reasons to fire an employee who had offended people with this speech. That is why they solicited anonymous complaints; why they would not tell Negy which ones they would be interrogating him over; why they would pick administrators to make judgments about academic speech. Negy’s job was never going to survive this inquiry. That was the whole point.

As Butler promised, the wheels were “in motion,” and Negy would be “dealt with.” 

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