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New College of Florida axes professor who criticized college, purportedly over his ‘leftist’ views

While FIRE works to learn more about Erik Wallenberg’s non-renewal, we’ve told the New College its public statements that the dismissal was viewpoint-based are unlawful.  
Christopher Rufo is escorted away from protesters by police

Thomas Bender / Sarasota Herald-Tribune / USA TODAY NETWORK

Christopher Rufo (center) is escorted by police away from protestors at the New College of Florida on May 15, 2023.

Earlier this week, New College of Florida trustee Christopher Rufo bragged about violating the First Amendment, tweeting that the college would not renew visiting history professor Erik Wallenberg’s contract, citing his “left-wing” teaching, views, and past criticism of university leadership. 

As we explained to New College in a letter today, this is a clear violation of the public college’s First Amendment obligations to respect faculty expression, with ramifications far beyond one non-renewed professor. All New College faculty will be chilled from expressing themselves, teaching as they see fit, or speaking out on matters of public concern, if they know their jobs are at the mercy of a select few administrators.

New College leadership must immediately reverse course and publicly reaffirm its commitment to protecting faculty expression and academic freedom rights.

But that, it seems, is what New College trustee Rufo wants faculty to think — at least judging from his prolific tweets over the past several months expressing his desire to purge the New College of “left-wing Mad Libs.”

On Tuesday, Rufo went well beyond posturing, suggesting New College had actually done so.

“New College of Florida has let the contract for visiting professor Erik Wallenberg expire. He will not be returning to the campus,” Rufo wrote. “I wish Professor Wallenberg well and hope his work on ‘radical theatre and environmental movements’ finds a more suitable home.”

Rufo also suggested Wallenberg was being dismissed for criticizing the university, linking to previous tweets calling out Wallenberg for an op-ed the professor co-authored in Teen Vogue harshly criticizing both Rufo and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for allegedly gutting academic freedom at the college. 

In another tweet, Rufo said, “It is a privilege, not a right, to be employed by a taxpayer-funded university.”

FIRE wrote New College today, explaining that while faculty may not have a right to employment, government actors — bound to honor faculty members’ constitutional rights — cannot retaliate against faculty for their First Amendment-protected expression. 

While a public college might lawfully decline to renew a faculty member’s contract for a good reason, a bad reason, or no reason at all, it cannot legally retaliate against a faculty member for engaging in First Amendment-protected speech. Nevertheless, this appears to be exactly what the college did.

As we wrote:

New College administrators must first understand they are government actors, bound to uphold students’ and faculty members’ constitutional rights. The “bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment . . . is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society”—or a public college administrator, for that matter—“finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.” 

It is well-settled that faculty at public universities and colleges have expressive rights outside the classroom, including the right to criticize their institutions’ leaders. New College faculty do not “relinquish [their] First Amendment rights to comment on matters of public interest by virtue of government employment,” instead retaining the right to speak as private citizens on matters of public concern,  including on the functioning of a public college. Accordingly, a public college cannot penalize a faculty member for speaking as a private citizen on a matter of public concern unless it demonstrates that its interests “as an employer, in promoting the efficiency of the public services it performs through its employees” outweigh the interest of the employee, “as a citizen, in commenting upon matters of public concern[.]” And when a “public employee takes [their] concerns to persons outside the work place”—to the pages of Teen Vogue, for example—“those external communications are ordinarily not made as an employee, but as a citizen.”

Additionally, even if New College chose not to renew Wallenberg’s contract for a lawful reason, because a New College trustee publicly attributed Wallenberg’s non-renewal to his teaching, views, and extramural expression,  other faculty members will certainly feel the chill of censorship. That is unacceptable at a public institution bound by the First Amendment.

Administrators, government officials, and trustees are free to disagree with Wallenberg’s teaching or criticism of New College, but they cannot punish him by non-renewing his contract or taking any other adverse action. Instead, Rufo and others should use their own voices to criticize those they disagree with — which they have historically had no problem doing right up to Rufo’s tweeted confession.

New College leadership must immediately reverse course and publicly reaffirm its commitment to protecting faculty expression and academic freedom rights.

We will remain vigilant, ensuring New College faculty do not face unconstitutional retaliation and that Florida officials honor their First Amendment obligations.

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 a 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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