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Catholic U. won’t explain why it punished professor for tweets, even though it promises free speech

Catholic University campus

The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., ignoring a letter from FIRE, won’t explain why it suspended a professor for tweets expressing his personal political opinions — despite university policies that explicitly promise free speech. The episode should signal to CUA students and faculty that the university’s numerous written commitments to free expression are mere lip service to this important ideal. And those thinking of matriculating or teaching at Catholic, who reasonably expect the school to uphold its promises of free expression, should think again. 

FIRE wrote to CUA last month after John Tieso, an instructor and adjunct assistant professor of business management, was investigated and suspended for tweets made from his personal Twitter account that were critical of former President Barack Obama and California Sen. Kamala Harris. The university allegedly told Tieso to delete his Twitter account after a student complained about a 2018 Tieso tweet that called Obama “incredibly impotent and vain” and suggested “perhaps he might consider staying in Africa and giving all his money to his people.” The tweet about Harris, from May 5 of this year, referred to her as a “former escort.”

Offensive extramural speech is not, alone, evidence of discriminatory conduct or harassment.

CUA’s investigation ramped up as local news station WUSA9 reported on the controversy, yet the report noted that no students complained about Tieso’s in-class behavior.

“None of the students or alumni we talked [to] were aware of any prior student complaints regarding Tieso’s Twitter account,” wrote WUSA9’s Larry Miller. “When asked about Tieso’s behavior toward students of color, students we spoke with described it as respectful.”

CUA’s policies likewise protect Tieso’s right to express his political opinions as a private citizen.

While CUA is private and may commit itself to any values it wishes, once it promises expressive rights, it is morally and contractually bound to uphold those promises. And, as we explained in our letter, the university makes numerous strong promises of free expression:

[CUA’s] Demonstrations Policy provides, in part, that the university “values and defends the right of free speech and the freedom of members of the University community to express themselves,” provided that the expression does not otherwise violate law or policy. Its faculty handbook, in setting forth the “Aims of the University,” dedicates the university as a “free and autonomous center” where “freedom is fostered and where the only constraint upon truth is truth itself.” The handbook likewise commits the university to the principles of academic freedom, “a tradition grounded on . . . individual rights” which “posits freedom of inquiry, open discussion and unrestricted exchange of ideas as essential to the pursuit of knowledge.” 

Moreover, the university’s Political Activities Policy pledges the university “to the free and open discussion of ideas and opinions,” promising that “[f]aculty, staff and students are free to express their individual and collective political views,” and its Social Media Policy recommends (but does not require) a disclaimer when a faculty member’s “University affiliation is listed” on social media accounts. (Tieso’s account complied with school policy.) These promises track the way the First Amendment protects employee expression, which protects government employees who speak out as citizens on issues of public concern.

“This sensible approach recognizes the autonomy of students and faculty to speak on political matters in their personal capacity,” FIRE wrote in our letter, “without fear that their institution will penalize them.”

A university could doubtlessly investigate and punish discriminatory conduct. However, offensive extramural speech is not, alone, evidence of discriminatory conduct or harassment. If CUA deems offensive speech alone to be punishable, that would imperil a broad range of speech on controversial issues, in or out of the classroom, and would subject faculty members to investigations, suspensions, or termination for speech alone. That abandonment of fundamental principles of freedom of expression and academic freedom knows no fidelity to the ideology of the speaker: We’ve seen time and time again that if academic institutions may penalize expression simply because others find it offensive, they surrender their students’ and faculty members’ expressive rights to angry community members, legislators across the aisle, would-be donors, colleagues, students, or social media users of all political persuasions.

Some institutions have responded to FIRE favorably when asked for an explanation. Rutgers University, for example, reversed its position after FIRE intervened when the school punished a professor for two controversial Facebook posts about gentrification in Harlem. Catholic University of America, unfortunately, has no answer for the questions raised by its conduct against Tieso.

FIRE hopes CUA will reinstate John Tieso — joining the ranks of institutions who’ve admitted their mistakes and renewed their legal and moral commitments to free expression.

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