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Linfield launches investigation of professor’s posts praising English majors, suggesting tensions between English and business departments

A large sign at an entrance for Linfield College in McMinnville Oregon

Linfield University is investigating Professor Reshmi Dutt-Ballerstadt for her social media posts that praised English majors and criticized the business school’s takeover of the building housing the English department. (David Krug / Alamy Stock Photo)

Less than a year after Linfield University fired a tenured professor without due process because he criticized Linfield’s handling of sexual assault and harassment allegations, the university is at it again: this time, investigating a professor for her social media posts that praised English majors and criticized the business school’s takeover of the building housing the English department.

That’s right. That’s all she said. 

Maybe Linfield administrators really do prefer the business school. Otherwise, why would they investigate English professor Reshmi Dutt-Ballerstadt for nothing more than her social media posts — which apparently elicited a professionalism complaint to the school?

It all started March 9 when Dutt-Ballerstadt was in TJ Day Hall, the current location of  Linfield’s English department, which is slated to house the business school. She saw two quotes written on a classroom whiteboard and took pictures:

She then posted the pictures on her personal social media accounts, adding commentary:

On Tuesday, Lynn Johnson, Linfield’s director of human resources, told Dutt-Ballerstadt that she would be investigated for the posts, that the university was “in the process of securing an outside investigator to look into this matter,” and that Dutt-Ballerstadt’s participation “will be required.” 

Launching an investigation violates Linfield’s strong promises of free expression that it makes to faculty members. Linfield states that its community members are “entitled to use speech to convey disagreement, agreement, inquiry, or commentary in keeping with the principles underlying constitutionally protected free expression.” This guarantee cannot be squared with the university’s investigation of Dutt-Ballerstadt.

Has Linfield learned nothing from its past mistakes? 

Linfield has shown faculty they cannot trust the university’s promises.

This misstep by Linfield administrators makes us at FIRE think they were neither English nor business majors, because they can’t back up their thesis that they protect faculty rights, and they’re engaging in the bad business practice of making promises they can’t keep.

FIRE wrote to Linfield today explaining that because the university makes such strong promises of free expression, it cannot investigate or punish employees for clearly protected speech.

As we say in our letter:

Linfield’s initiation of an investigation alone—even if no punishment results—violates its promises of free expression. An investigation of constitutionally protected speech can itself violate the First Amendment, even if that investigation concludes in favor of the speaker. The question is not whether formal punishment is meted out, but whether the institution’s actions in response “would chill or silence a person of ordinary firmness from future First Amendment activities[.]”

This investigation comes less than a year after the university fired professor Daniel Pollack-Pelzner for criticizing the handling of sexual abuse scandals and alleging that the university’s president and chair of its Board of Trustees made anti-Semitic comments. Dutt-Ballerstadt has also been publicly critical of the university’s firing of Pollack-Pelzner. In both of these cases, Linfield has shown faculty they cannot trust the university’s promises.

Today, we told Linfield:

In order to comport with the promises it makes its faculty, Linfield must immediately cease investigating Dutt-Ballerstadt for her protected speech and publicly reaffirm that faculty enjoy robust expressive rights. Launching investigations into faculty’s protected extramural speech is an unacceptable outcome at a university that makes clear promises of free expression.

We asked Linfield to respond to our letter by Friday. We look forward to hearing back from the university and urge Linfield to reverse course and defend faculty expressive rights, even when it’s difficult.

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). If you’re a college journalist facing censorship or a media law question, call the Student Press Freedom Initiative 24-hour hotline at 717-734-SPFI (7734).

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