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FIRE warns University of California, Davis against investigating professor’s anti-police tweets

UC Davis campus

(Credit: Chris Allan / Shutterstock)

Last month, University of California, Davis student Nick Irvin published an investigation in The California Aggie into “rumors” that a professor had “advocated for violence against law enforcement” in an interview and on social media. Irvin wrote that he felt compelled to learn more about the rumors after the murder of Davis police officer Natalie Corona in January.

Irvin found multiple comments from UC Davis professor Joshua Clover (who is currently on medical leave) that he believed the campus community should be aware of:

I browsed Twitter, always the first stop in a general inquiry, and enlisted a colleague’s help to search for the professor’s elusive interview online. This is what we found:

“I am thankful that every living cop will one day be dead, some by their own hand, some by others, too many of old age #letsnotmakemore” — tweeted on Nov. 27, 2014.

“I mean, it’s easier to shoot cops when their backs are turned, no?” — tweeted on Dec. 27, 2014.

“People think that cops need to be reformed. They need to be killed.” — published in an interview on Jan. 31, 2016.

Irvin wrote, “It doesn’t matter that his comments came years ago; there can be no statute of limitations on violent speech when the offender in question refuses to apologize or make amends. When professors advocate murder, we all lose.”

Chief Marketing and Communications Officer Dana Topousis offered comment to The Aggie about Clover’s tweets, writing:

The UC Davis administration condemns the statement of Professor Clover to which you refer. It does not reflect our institutional values, and we find it unconscionable that anyone would condone much less appear to advocate murder. A young police officer has been killed serving the City of Davis. We mourn her loss and express our gratitude to all who risk their lives protecting us. We support law enforcement, and the UC Davis Police Department and Chief Joe Farrow have been and remain critical partners to our community.

Irvin further reported that Provost Ralph Hexter said “[t]he basis for academic freedom is to make sure that the university is a place where unpopular and different views are heard.”

Clover responded to media requests with this statement: “On the day that police have as much to fear from literature professors as Black kids do from police, I will definitely have a statement.”

On Feb. 26, Topousis also offered comment to The Sacramento Bee, correctly explaining that UC Davis found that Clover could not be punished by the university because “[p]ublic statements like those made by Professor Clover are accorded a high level of protection under the First Amendment.”

However, on March 5, ABC10 reported that, contrary to previous statements affirming Clover’s First Amendment rights, UC Davis was investigating his speech:

Currently, Chancellor Gary S. May has the campus legal team reviewing Clover's conduct and is waiting for their advice so he can better consult the University of California President Janet Napolitano. Napolitano would also need to seek consultation from the Academic Senate which could hold a hearing for Clover.

If Napolitano decided to recommend to the Board of Regents to dismiss the professor, then the Board of Regents would vote on whether to dismiss Clover or not to dismiss him.

FIRE wrote to UC Davis Chancellor Gary May today, explaining that the university’s initial response — recognizing Clover’s First Amendment rights — was correct, and that this type of investigation would place the university at odds with its moral and legal obligations.

FIRE’s letter reminds UC Davis that, if the report of its investigation is accurate, the First Amendment limits the disciplinary consequences that a public university may impose on a professor for speech expressed in his private capacity on matters of public concern, which certainly include even hostile comments about law enforcement, and that an investigation into Clover’s speech would unacceptably chill the speech of his colleagues.

Read the full letter, available below:

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