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Stop making illiberal calls for investigations; it’s confusing students.

The University of North Carolina has been mired in controversy for months over accusations that elected officials, donors, and political appointees have sought to use their political power to interfere with faculty governance. (Action Sports Photography/Shutterstock)

This past June, an all too familiar controversy erupted on the University of North Carolina Wilmington’s campus. A professor made a statement that was offensive to many community members, posting “Blow up Republicans” on his personal Facebook page. Many made comparisons to previous controversial but protected comments of the late UNCW professor Mike Adams. Both incidents resulted in numerous campus calls for investigations and firings, some of which arrived in my student government email. 

As UNCW’s current student body president and a FIRE summer intern, this situation was especially concerning to me. Thankfully, the university responded early to clarify that the post was protected speech and that the professor would not face punitive actions. Unfortunately, politicians and campus trustees, ignoring clear precedent, continued to call for investigations into Dan Johnson’s post, resulting in a confusing landscape for students. 

Responses calling for university punitive action are understandable coming from students, who often have less experience with the nuances of free expression and academic freedom at a public university. However, it was not just students invoking the university to respond to (and even punish) the professor. Elected officials and political appointees who have a higher civic obligation made many of the initial calls on the university to investigate the professor. Investigations are not intrinsically illiberal, and they often serve as a necessary fact-finding process when there is unlawful action or unprotected speech at issue. But when universities conduct investigations into clearly protected speech, they promulgate an impermissible chilling effect.

You can’t censor your way to ideological diversity.

Calls to investigate protected speech undermine the university’s interest in modeling good civic behavior for their students and damage our democratic obligation to treat protected speech as protected speech. When students are told — inaccurately — by their institutional and government leaders that hyperbolic political speech from a professor is an unlawful true threat, what then are they to think of similar statements from other students? 

This knee-jerk reaction from those in leadership positions will encourage students and the public to call for more unfounded investigations and punishments in the future. 

Misguided words from a trusted public figure, when coupled with broadly-held notions about corruption in academia, are a dangerous combination. Consider North Carolina Rep. Madison Cawthorn, emphatically claiming that professor Johnson’s Facebook post was “criminal” on his campaign Twitter account. Over 2,000 people liked the message with hundreds more retweeting. It’s understandable why many would trust Cawthorn’s claim; it even mirrors our human impulse to censor ideas with which we disagree. In this case, Cawthorn’s misguided tweet led to widespread calls for the university to punish a professor for protected political expression. 

Political appointees, including campus trustees, also wield a powerful pulpit. In this case, a trustee used the incident as an opportunity to call attention to concerns on intellectual diversity and a perceived campus bias against conservative speakers — a concern with which I am sympathetic. Indeed, recent studies have shown that conservatives are the most likely group to self-censor; however, the trustee’s means of bringing up this concern set a bad precedent that is likely to backfire. Conservative self-censorship on campus is a problem, but the solution is not government censorship of left-leaning speech. You can’t censor your way to ideological diversity. The First Amendment was created to ensure that speech protections are not extended or revoked on the whims of the political party in power. 

Censorship is a bipartisan problem

Looking at UNCW and other campuses’ history of censorship and free expression, it becomes clear that punishing unsavory speech is a bipartisan tool. These illiberal calls have come from both sides of the political spectrum. In addition to UNCW professors Adams and Johnson, there are numerous other examples of calls for censorship from all sides of the political spectrum. 

If we claim to truly value freedom of expression, we cannot abide by a philosophy that reduces down to “free speech for me but not for thee.”

If we truly value freedom of expression, we cannot abide by a philosophy that reduces down to “free speech for me but not for thee.” Campus communities, and in particular those charged with leadership positions, must overcome the human impulse to censor controversial statements; that's their obligation to their students and constituencies.  

If not censor and punish, what should institutional leaders and politicians do in the face of controversial speech, like that of professors Adams and Johnson? As FIRE President and CEO Greg Lukianoff argues, campus administrators “must make clear that punishments based on unpopular or controversial — but protected — speech contradict the values of any university, and will not occur at their college.” 

By implementing and following this step, campus communities can mitigate confusion surrounding calls for the censorship of controversial speakers. 

I am thankful to attend a university that values the expressive rights of even controversial speakers and am proud of our status as one of the nation’s few “green light” schools for expression. But those efforts are undermined when influential leaders mislead the public with inaccurate free speech claims.

So, politicians and political appointees, please stop making calls for investigations into protected expression. It’s confusing us, your local college students! 

Robert Fensom is a rising senior at the University of North Carolina Wilmington and FIRE Summer Intern.

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