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Drexel University avoids transparency about why it barred professor from campus, as criticism piles up

Ten months ago, Drexel University embarked on an investigation into the “extremely damaging conduct” of Professor George Ciccariello-Maher in making a joke lampooning a white nationalist theory — a Twitter joke that went viral due, in part, to a Russian Twitter account. In October, Drexel barred Ciccariello-Maher from its campus, citing threats from people outraged about his political views. He remains banned, and Drexel refuses to share basic information that would substantiate its claims that security compels his exile.

As Drexel’s student newspaper reports, Ciccariello-Maher’s absence has made teaching difficult:

Ciccariello-Maher’s absence from campus has resulted in remote class sessions, where he is projected onto the whiteboard with a live video feed. Classroom discussions now take place with students speaking into two microphones.

Last month, FIRE wrote a letter to Drexel — our second letter raising concerns about this incident — asking the university to provide basic information about the factual basis for its decisions. Transparency, through sharing this basic information about its process, would help provide assurance that Drexel’s safety concerns are sincere and necessary, as opposed to a thin justification for removing a professor whose political commentary has drawn calls for his termination.

We asked Drexel to share, for example, information about the general nature of the threats, what law enforcement agencies had been contacted and when, whether any law enforcement agency had determined any threat to be credible, and what other steps Drexel had taken or considered in lieu of removing Ciccariello-Maher from campus.

Drexel won’t provide this information. In a response earlier this month, Drexel provost M. Brian Blake complained that FIRE lacks “accurate or complete information,” but declined to provide further information. Instead, Blake disputed that Ciccariello-Maher had been “suspended” because Drexel only “removed him from campus” — an action the American Association of University Professors says meets their definition of a suspension.

Beyond that, Drexel declined to provide information that would answer our basic questions, including whether any law enforcement agency has found the threats to be credible. Instead, Drexel now says there have been “threats of violence that seriously concern” campus police, who “[consult] with other police and intelligence agencies.” That’s well and good, but did Drexel consult with outside law enforcement about these threats? What did those agencies say?

The lack of transparency on Drexel’s part, and the prolonged exile — Ciccariello-Maher has now been barred from campus for 56 days, and has been under investigation for at least 10 months — doesn’t help Drexel’s credibility.

More people are catching on to Drexel’s illiberal behavior. Students supporting Ciccariello-Maher have held walk-outs and staged a sit-in to protest Drexel’s conduct. They’re not getting direct answers, either:

“Every time we try to get an answer, it gets lost in the bureaucratic circle of Drexel, and it either goes to not their department, or not them specifically as a person. And blame just keeps getting shifted from person to person that it’s hard to even talk to someone at this point.” Josh Anker, a former student of Ciccariello-Maher’s, said.

“It just seems like they talk to us, and they’re like ‘yeah, we hear you, we hear what you have to say,’ and then … nothing happens,” the anonymous student said.

Other organizations have also raised questions. The California Scholars for Academic Freedom called on Drexel to reverse course, arguing that “we may not all share Professor Ciccariello-Maher’s taste for acerbic rhetoric, [but] his criticisms of US policy, political piety or rank white supremacy are [not] outside the norms of political expression.” Although Drexel has claimed to be following the standards set by the AAUP, the AAUP has also repeatedly questioned Drexel’s motives and explanations.

Consider also the criticism of Erwin Chemerinsky and Howard Gillman — the dean of the University of California, Berkeley School of Law and chancellor of the University of California at Irvine, respectively — who cited Drexel’s dubious actions among the more prominent examples of threats to free speech on campus. Chemerinsky and Gillman recount a long history of campuses banishing speakers across ideological spectrums, and conclude:

Of course, campuses must evaluate the quality of a professor’s teaching or scholarship, which inherently involves assessing their speech. But universities must not use a professor’s statements in other settings as a basis for “excommunicating” an otherwise qualified professor. ...

There are people on the right who decry the violent harassment of conservative speakers but encourage the harassment of left-wing faculty. There are also people on the left who believe we should censor or harass certain right-wing speakers but object when left-wing faculty become targets of vitriol or worse.

We think a consistent rule is better: On campuses, no one should be censored or punished merely because of the ideas they express, and we should all stand against threats, harassment and violence.

They’re right. Maintaining campus safety is critical — without basic security, no speech is safe. Yet the deference often shown to authorities when they claim a need to act in defense of safety can easily be abused. When acts by these authorities disproportionately burden a controversial speaker, the authorities’ claims should be rigorously scrutinized to prevent censorship from being disguised as security. Officials must be transparent, and when they are not, their claims should not long be afforded deference.

We have repeatedly asked Drexel to provide information about the propriety of its investigation into Ciccariello-Maher and its claims that safety concerns compel it to physically bar him from campus. In response, Drexel has repeatedly claimed that we lack the information that justifies its actions.

Given repeated opportunities to share that information, Drexel officials insist instead that we take their word for it.

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