University of Rhode Island (URI) President David Dooley issued a new statement this past Sunday regarding Associate Professor Erik Loomis' recent criticism of the National Rifle Association.
Following the tragic murders in Newtown, Connecticut, Loomis took to Twitter to sharply criticize the NRA. Among other statements, Loomis called for NRA Chief Executive Officer Wayne LaPierre's "head on a stick." Loomis' hyperbole generated significant criticism, including calls for his firing and arrest. As a result, Loomis was questioned by police and called into a meeting with a URI administrator, and even reported receiving death threats.
Dooley first addressed the situation in a brief statement issued December 18, distancing the institution from Loomis' criticisms and stating that URI "does not condone acts or threats of violence." FIRE wrote to Dooley on December 21, reminding him that as a public university URI is bound by the First Amendment, and that Loomis' statements do not qualify as true threats and are fully protected speech. We asked Dooley to "immediately make clear to Loomis and to the entire URI community that he will not be investigated or punished for protected expression."
In Sunday's statement, Dooley acknowledged URI's First Amendment obligations and that Loomis' statements, however controversial, were nonetheless protected. Dooley's statement in full reads:
"Over the past several days we have heard from many individuals concerning statements made or repeated by Professor Erik Loomis. Many writers forcefully expressed serious concern about his statements and many others expressed very strong support for Professor Loomis, especially in regard to his First Amendment right to share his personal opinions. In the statements at issue, Professor Loomis did not make it clear that he was speaking solely as an individual, and that the views he expressed were his alone and did not reflect the views of the University of Rhode Island. This was the rationale for our original statement.
The University of Rhode Island strongly believes that Constitutionally protected rights to free expression are the foundation of American democracy, and central to our mission of imparting knowledge and promoting the exchange of ideas. It is our conviction that Professor Loomis's personal remarks, however intemperate and inflammatory they may be, are protected by the First Amendment, as are the views of those who have contacted us in recent days."
We're pleased to see Dooley's clarification and we welcome his statement. Even a belated recognition of the First Amendment is better than none at all.