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Furman University violates faculty free expression, investigates professor for attending Unite the Right rally

Furman University Campus in South Carolina

Bryan Pollard /

Furman University in South Carolina has banned a professor from campus and opened an investigation after it was revealed on social media that he attended the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville.

After photos recently surfaced depicting a Furman University professor’s attendance at the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, the university opened an investigation and banned him from campus based on the event organizers’ “harmful” views. FIRE wrote the university urging it to honor the free expression promises it makes to faculty.

On Sept. 30, an anti-fascist Twitter account posted images of Christopher Healy, a Furman computer science professor, at the now-infamous Charlottesville rally. The protest was originally organized to object to the town’s plan to remove a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee, but it became violent and dozens were injured and one counter-protester died. The images show Healy standing in a crowd but not participating in any violence.

After the years-old images resurfaced last week, the university quickly placed Healy on leave, launched an investigation, and banned him from campus. Furman President Elizabeth Davis released a statement that condemned the rally’s “associat[ion] with other organizations that are connected with white supremacist groups that promote racism, exclusion and hatred” and pledged to investigate Healy.

Highlighting Healy’s ban from campus and citing the “harmful” views attributed to rally attendees, Davis wrote, “It is our responsibility when matters like these come to light to engage in robust dialogue about what belonging and thriving mean on our campus and beyond. As we continue to struggle with this difficult situation, we intend to engage our campus in further conversation.”

Not only is Furman violating its binding contractual obligations, it is also defying a South Carolina law that prohibits employers from dismissing employees like Healy for their protected political activity.

Dialogue and conversation are the right ways to confront contentious issues, but that’s not the approach the university took in practice. As a private institution that guarantees faculty will be “free from institutional censorship or discipline” when they “speak or write as citizens,” Furman has overstepped in investigating Healy. Importantly, the institution has not said it’s investigating Healy for participating in violence or other unlawful conduct that day (and no one has alleged he did), but rather for his mere association with viewpoints that the university deems “harmful.”

As FIRE’s letter to Furman explains, not only is Furman violating its binding contractual obligations, it is also defying a South Carolina law that prohibits employers from dismissing employees like Healy for their protected political activity.

We told Furman it cannot shut down speech solely in the name of “conventions of decency,” because the heart of free expression is the protection of core political speech:

This calculus does not change when some or many express deep disagreement with the speech at issue. The “desire to maintain a sedate academic environment does not justify limitations on a teacher’s freedom to express himself on political issues in vigorous, argumentative, unmeasured, and even distinctly unpleasant terms.”  Freedom of expression thus protects both Healy’s attendance at the Unite the Right rally and the more recent criticism of it that followed. Academic freedom relies on exchanges of ideas, however sharp and uncomfortable some exchanges may become. The process of protest and debate about it is one of “more speech”  and open discussion, the remedy preferred over the silencing or punishing protected expression.

Additionally, the right to peaceably assemble — which Healy is depicted doing, although others did not that day — is guaranteed in the protection of free expression. Authorities may not abridge that right, which lies “at the base of all civil and political institutions.” Instead, Furman may publicly object to or criticize Healy’s decision to attend the protest, but it cannot punish him for his core political expression.

Controversial speech remains protected by the university’s free speech promises. 

Furman has no legitimate basis for punishing Healy given its free expression promises and South Carolina law. Its investigation of Healy alone constitutes adverse action, as even if Furman ultimately does not formally punish him, its investigation “would chill or silence a person of ordinary firmness” from expressing themselves in the future.

As we wrote in our letter:

Here, Furman claims it is investigating whether Healy “engaged in conduct that directly, substantially, and consistently impairs” his fulfillment of his professional responsibilities—the exact standard the university uses to determine whether to dismiss a faculty member.  The prospect of this significant sanction satisfies the ordinary firmness test —and sends the message that protected speech like that in which Healy engaged may be punished in the future.

Controversial speech remains protected by the university’s free speech promises. We call on Furman to immediately end its investigation into Healy and return him to the classroom.

FIRE defends the rights of students and faculty members — no matter their views — at public and private universities and colleges in the United States. If you are a student or a faculty member facing investigation or punishment for your speech, submit your case to FIRE today. If you’re faculty member at a public college or university, call the Faculty Legal Defense Fund 24-hour hotline at 254-500-FLDF (3533).

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