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Palm Beach Atlantic’s alleged review of racial justice course suggests ‘Stop W.O.K.E’s’ long shadow in Sunshine State

Palm Beach Atlantic University

Solarisys /

A 20-year teaching veteran at Florida’s Palm Beach Atlantic University said the school threatened to dismiss him if his course materials on racial justice are found to be “indoctrinating students.” The troubling report is the latest in a long line of attacks on academic freedom in Florida where, since April, the state has been attempting to ban public school teachers and university faculty from talking about a wide swath of race- and gender-related topics.

Last Thursday, English professor Samuel Joeckel said in an Instagram post that the university’s provost and its dean of the school of liberal arts and sciences pulled him aside after class to say his contract renewal would be delayed until they reviewed his race-related course materials.

Screenshot of Samuel Joeckel Instagram post

Joeckel told Inside Higher Ed that PBA’s president had allegedly “received an angry phone call from a parent of a student,” citing concern’s that the professor’s material — which he’s reportedly taught for more than a decade — was “indoctrinating students.” 

“I had no idea this was coming,” Joeckel told CNN. “They told me they had concerns that I was indoctrinating students. That was the exact word they used: indoctrinating.”

Calling the situation with Joeckel a “personnel matter,” PBA has refused to comment. 

Joeckel’s account is highly concerning. We wrote PBA today demanding it drop the review of the course, ensure Joeckel’s contract is not non-renewed in retaliation for his teaching, and commit to upholding the school’s academic freedom promises. 

This situation is the latest in a long line of concerning incidents involving academic freedom in Florida where the governor has been attempting to enforce the “Stop W.O.K.E Act,” which would censor certain discussions of race and gender in the state’s public schools and universities. PBA is a private university, but it independently promises faculty academic freedom, encompassing the right to “teach, investigate, and publish freely,” as well as “freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject and in structuring the content and presentation of courses.” The university also promises students free expression and “the opportunity to learn.” 

PBA must also keep these promises if it wishes to keep its accreditation. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools requires accredited institutions like PBA to respect “the right of faculty members to teach, investigate, and publish freely.”

It should go without saying that threatening to nonrenew a professor unless administrators review and approve his pedagogically-relevant teaching materials is not academic freedom.

We also explain in our letter that “if PBA’s action is motivated by concern for its obligations under the Stop W.O.K.E. Act, that concern is unwarranted.” As we elaborate there:

Setting aside whether the Act would restrict teaching at a private institution at all, its enforcement in the context of both public universities and private entities has been enjoined by a federal court due to its chilling effect on expression and academic freedom. Against this backdrop, PBA must meet its binding legal, moral, and accreditation-related commitments to honor academic freedom even amidst intense public pressure to abandon these important principles.

We further explain that Joeckel’s contract-based employment does not give PBA carte blanche to non-renew faculty with views administrators dislike. “[W]hile an institution may generally decline to renew a faculty member’s contract for a good reason, a poor reason, or no reason at all,” our letter states, “it cannot do so for a retaliatory reason, including retaliation for the expression of protected speech.” 

PBA has reportedly already retaliated against Joeckel by threatening him for exercising his right to free speech and academic freedom.

We urge the university to reverse course and resist Florida’s unconstitutional efforts to censor faculty speech in the state.

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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