Loyola University New Orleans has spent the last two and a half years subjecting professor Walter Block to investigations and sanctions for his protected speech. The university has targeted Block for everything from his teaching of particular economic theories to his classroom discussion of Gandhi and Hitler. Yet all of the speech in question is squarely protected by Loyola’s strong promises of free speech and academic freedom.
After receiving a letter from FIRE last month exhaustively explaining Loyola’s flagrant violations of Block’s rights, the university responded with a four-sentence email insisting it acted in accord with university policy and state and federal law – but without specifically addressing any of the points our letter raised. It was, notably, the same response Loyola used to rebuff our separate concerns about its recent crackdown on a student’s pro-choice protest.
Block’s trouble began in June 2020 when students created and circulated a change.org petition calling for his termination. The students accused Block of holding “racist and sexist” beliefs, exemplified, they claimed, by some of Block’s alleged statements on slavery, the gender wage gap, and the Americans with Disabilities Act.
A group of students sent a letter to then-university president Tania Tetlow calling for action against Block, citing a New York Times article that quoted Block as saying slavery was “not so bad.” (The accusations ignored that Block received a settlement in a defamation suit against the Times in which he claimed the paper had taken his words out of context.) Tetlow acknowledged the students’ concerns, but admirably stood by the university’s promises of academic freedom in explaining the decision not to punish Block.
However, the administration would not have Block’s back for very long. In April 2021, Loyola determined various comments Block made in his Intermediate Microeconomics course — including his use of the word “Oriental,” his teaching of the “marital asymmetry hypothesis” as an explanation for the gender wage gap, and his reference to slave owners in a discussion about authoritarianism — had created a hostile learning environment. The university required Block to complete diversity, equity, and inclusion training.
And Block continued to face sanctions and investigations throughout 2021. In July he was sanctioned for discussing wages and productivity in his Principles of Microeconomics class after he used a hypothetical premise in which he and two students — one of whom was a student of color — picked cotton at different speeds to explain that employers pay the highest wage to the most productive workers. A student also complained about another of Block’s illustrations of worker productivity, asserting that he invoked stereotypes about Asians and Harvard graduates not being good at basketball to explain why the New York Knicks did not accurately estimate the ability of Taiwanese-American player Jeremy Lin. Loyola forced Block to apologize to the student and imposed a mandatory review of his syllabus before each semester.
Next, in October, Vice Provost Uriel Quesada emailed Block to inform him of a complaint concerning comments and readings from his Law and Economics course. The allegations included Block’s use of the terms “Oriental” and “atta girl,” although Block used them in the context of explaining he had “just turned 80, and my language skills are sort of embedded in me based on past experience, so if I say something that is problematic, just let me know, and I will apologize for it and we will go on and I’ll try not to.”
It’s impossible for Block to defend his speech when the complaint doesn’t even mention what he said.
The student also complained that Block used a reading from the Mises Institute, a libertarian think tank, and in another lesson, placed Mahatma Gandhi and Adolf Hitler on the same side of a left-right political spectrum, which Block did in an effort to demonstrate the inadequacy of the spectrum.
These complaints led Loyola to request that Block participate in additional DEI training sessions. In a report on the sessions, the DEI trainer said Block’s “libertarian views may seem extreme to many; in addition his penchant to provoke and incite in dialogue as a means of teaching seems to exacerbate current standards of appropriate classroom engagement.” The trainer recommended that Loyola assign a coach to work with Block “on expanding his classroom facilitation skills.”
The saga still wasn’t over.
In December, Provost Tanujah Singh notified Block that three other students filed complaints against him for his speech. Curiously, these complaints did not allege anything new. In fact, they were dated June 2020 and appeared to involve the same speech that had been the subject of the change.org petition — speech for which Block was already wrongfully punished. One complaint alleged Block “expressed his racism, homophobia, transphobia, and sexism publicly in classes, in his writings, and in his emails” but failed to cite any specific comments. That raises due process concerns, as it’s impossible for Block to defend his speech when the complaint doesn’t even mention what he said. Nevertheless, Singh used these stale, vague, and meritless complaints to threaten Block with termination.
Eleven months after it began, Loyola completed its investigation of the October 2021 complaints (which included the phrases “Oriental” and “atta girl”, along with the Mises lecture and left/right paradigm argument) and imposed new sanctions on Block. Singh directed Block to comply with a plan to participate in “facilitation coaching” with “specific strategies to refrain from engaging in conduct that may be harmful to our students.” Singh also informed Block that his syllabi will continue to be subject to prior review and again threatened Block with termination if the university received additional student complaints.
But all of these university actions ignore that, while Block’s teaching style and personal political views may offend some, they are plainly protected by Loyola’s robust promises of free speech and academic freedom.
Loyola must understand that a commitment to academic freedom means nothing if it is instantly discarded the moment a student complains about a professor’s views or comments.
Although Loyola, as a private institution, is not bound by the First Amendment, it guarantees each faculty member “the enjoyment of constitutionally protected freedoms of action and expression, and the right to dissent, without jeopardizing his or her livelihood.” Moreover, it promises that “[e]ach faculty member has the right to present subject matter in the manner he or she deems most suitable, as well as the right to present controversial material relevant to a course of instruction.”
Loyola’s ongoing investigation of the vague complaints filed in June 2020 — which seem to involve substantially the same speech Loyola already deemed protected by its academic freedom policies — is especially egregious. As FIRE’s Oct. 31 letter explains, rehashing these old, settled disputes subjects “Block to fundamentally unjust treatment akin to double jeopardy.”
There is also no question Block’s identifiable in-class comments and reading assignments were pedagogically relevant and protected. Loyola has no authority to punish him for speech deemed outdated or offensive when not used in a way that rises to actionable harassment.
As our letter explains:
Loyola’s interest in addressing harassment does not create a catchall to punish any speech related to a sensitive subject like race or gender that a student may find offensive. Otherwise, Loyola’s promise to its faculty of “the enjoyment of constitutionally protected freedoms of action and expression” would depend on the subjective approval of administrators, rendering the university’s commitment illusory.
The Supreme Court’s standard for actionable harassment in the educational context requires speech to be unwelcome, discriminatory on the basis of gender or another protected status, and “so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it can be said to deprive the victims of access to the educational opportunities or benefits provided by the school.” None of Block’s remarks meet this strict standard. As the Department of Education has made clear, punishable harassment “must include something beyond the mere expression of views, words, symbols or thoughts that some person finds offensive.”
Loyola must understand that a commitment to academic freedom means nothing if it is instantly discarded the moment a student complains about a professor’s views or comments. As FIRE told the university:
Loyola does a disservice to both its faculty and students when it falsely equates a professor’s “penchant to provoke and incite in dialogue as a means of teaching” with creating a hostile learning environment. Provoking students to think critically, challenge their assumptions, and engage in dialogue is a fundamental purpose of higher education. Students may sometimes feel uncomfortable or upset when they encounter new and challenging ideas or perspectives. That is part of learning.
Loyola’s non-response to FIRE’s letter — brushing off our concerns while failing to acknowledge numerous violations of Walter Block’s academic freedom — is completely inadequate. We will continue to hold the university’s feet to the fire until it revokes all sanctions imposed on Block as a result of his protected speech and confirms dismissal of the vague and frivolous December 2021 complaints.