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Civil liberties advocates, celebrities sign letter defending professor fired by Babson College, whose claimed ‘cooperation’ with police is in doubt

Babson College Asheen Phansey

Olin Hall at Babson College.

Five civil liberties organizations — together with some 160 authors, artists, and academics — are coming to the defense of Asheen Phansey, the adjunct faculty member terminated by Babson College over a tongue-in-cheek Facebook post criticizing President Trump’s Iran rhetoric. 

The open letter, sent by anti-censorship group PEN America to Babson College yesterday, calls Phansey’s firing “deeply disturbing” and calls on the school to immediately reverse the professor’s wrongful termination. The letter includes signatures from civil liberties groups and advocates including FIRE, the AFL-CIO, the ACLU of Massachusetts, the National Coalition Against Censorship, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Molly Ringwald, Salman Rushdie, Joyce Carol Oates, Nadine Strossen, Eugene Volokh, Rosanne Cash, and many more.

As FIRE previously reported, Babson College rushed to head off social media criticism over a personal Facebook post Phansey wrote earlier this month criticizing Trump’s threat to bomb Iranian cultural sites — snarking that Iran should respond by threatening to bomb the Kardashians. The college condemned the “threatening words and/or actions condoning violence” and claimed it was “cooperating with local, state and federal authorities” as it publicly announced a “thorough investigation” that concluded — the following day — with Phansey’s termination.

Babson's administration exploited the credibility of law enforcement in order to justify the swift termination of a faculty member over political speech.

That unwise decision, at odds with the college’s purported commitment to freedom of expression, transformed what could have been an unremarkable, local controversy into headlines in The New York Times, Washington Post, NBC, and outlets around the world. 

Meanwhile, Babson’s assertions are falling apart as quickly as its purported commitment to freedom of expression.

In its public statements, Babson emphasized that it was “cooperating” with law enforcement regarding what it repeatedly characterized as Phansey’s “threatening words” and “actions.” 

Massachusetts law requires police departments to keep a “daily log” of “all responses to valid complaints received” or “crimes reported.” One might expect that upon receiving a report of a supposedly terroristic threat, the local police department might write it down somewhere. FIRE asked the Wellesley Police Department for their log and reports. The local police — with whom Babson said it was “cooperating” — say no such records exist.

Babson College also has its own police department, which is required to maintain a public log by the same Massachusetts law. FIRE is reliably informed by a member of the public — whom Babson College refused to allow to take photos of this public record — that the log does not reveal any reports concerning Phansey. 

If Babson College believed Phansey’s post amounted to “threatening words” necessitating “cooperation with local, state, and federal authorities,” why did it not report the incident to its campus police or the local police department?

Instead, Babson contacted local police to warn them of a different concern: the media. As The Boston Globe reports, Babson “got in touch with the Wellesley Police to notify them of a potential media firestorm, according to law enforcement officials.”

Babson College knew Phansey’s post was political snark directed at the president, but they hoped to convince the public that they, and the police, thought it was a threat. So Babson claimed to be “cooperating” with police, because that’s what responsible, credible institutions do when someone makes a threat of violence. In short, its administration exploited the credibility of law enforcement in order to justify the swift termination of a faculty member over political speech. 

PEN America’s letter calls on Babson “to immediately reverse course and reinstate Phansey to his positions at the college.”

“Any other outcome,” it states, “risks permanently tarnishing the reputation of Babson and jeopardizing the climate for political speech on campuses across the country.”

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