Professors are people too. While they may serve the institutions at which they teach, they do not exist to serve those institutions, and are free to fully express themselves outside of the classroom. But Trinity Christian College, a small Christian college in Illinois, missed that critical distinction. In May 2021, it failed to renew the contract of assistant professor Melissa Vanden Bout for tweets she posted in her capacity as a citizen, not as a professor.
Prior to today, Vanden Bout’s story remained private, but now we’re taking it public to add it to our Scholars Under FIRE database — and to add to the public knowledge of how and why professors are punished, even terminated, for protected speech.
Trouble at Trinity
Vanden Bout, a Trinity alumna and former faculty member, began teaching philosophy at the private college in 2014. Like many professors, she often shared her thoughts about politics and culture on social media, using a personal account not affiliated with the college to discuss issues of race, gender, and identity.
“On Twitter, I tried to draw lines a little closer to myself. I tried very hard not to have any interaction with Trinity people,” Vanden Bout said. “It was where I went to talk to activists and scholars.”
But in April 2021, those lines were blurred when then-Provost Aaron Kuecker asked Vanden Bout via email to meet with him, citing “significant concerns” regarding “professionalism in communication and its impact on the learning environment.” The email arrived shortly after Vanden Bout tweeted “Fuck the police” in response to the Minneapolis Police calling George Floyd’s death a “medical incident.”
“Right as everything is happening, we’re all mourning George Floyd,” said Vanden Bout. “I’m responding to that.”
A day later, a local police officer shared a screenshot of Vanden Bout’s tweet on Facebook. Again, Kuecker emailed the professor, telling her that an unidentified social media post of hers was causing him to receive “notes of significant concern.”
The email acknowledged that “Trinity cannot ask employees to take any action with regard to personal social media accounts.” Yet, Kuecker did just that, asking Vanden Bout to delete her — as yet unspecified — posts, for reasons of propriety.
“Allowing politeness to be the standard for speech means ensuring that the conversation is deeply unjust,” Vanden Bout said.
But even subjectively improper speech, when uttered in a professor’s personal capacity, should not provoke such a request.
“Allowing politeness to be the standard for speech means ensuring that the conversation is deeply unjust,” Vanden Bout said, explaining her decision to post the tweet. “They hired an ethicist. There’s a moral obligation to those of us who are more sheltered, more protected, to take more risks.”
Unfortunately for Vanden Bout, this risk brought consequences.
On May 7, 2021, after being pressured — and refusing — to apologize in a meeting with Kuecker and other Trinity administrators, she discovered she was locked out of her Trinity accounts, unable to check email or grade papers.
“I was just, you know, gone,” she said. “I was whisked away. And not only was I forbidden from coming to graduation the next day: I’m still forbidden from being on campus.”
A letter from Kuecker indicated that her contract would not be renewed, alleging violations of Trinity’s internet usage policy and workplace violence prevention policy. In the letter, Kuecker named specific tweets, characterizing them as “vulgar, unprofessional, unbecoming of a faculty member, and intimidating.”
One offending tweet, unsurprisingly, was the “Fuck the police” message which provoked the ire of the local police officer.
Another centered on a different culture war landmine: transgender issues. It read: “Alright you transphobic bastards. When you attack my trans sisters, you attack me. And don’t fuck around with my trans brothers or my [nonbinary] siblings. I’ll take it personal. As a cis woman my identity is not located in my uterus. I’m a woman on the same basis as my trans sisters are.”
With this message, Vanden Bout told FIRE, she hoped to convey her allyship with trans people in the context of national efforts to target them. Her perspective may have been particularly controversial at Trinity, where the community skews conservative.
“Trinity people were saying such horrible things about being transgender — queer people in general,” said Vanden Bout, who described how students who felt alienated often discussed personal and “deeply emotional” topics with her, trusting her to lend a sensitive ear. “Because of your gender identity, you’re already kind of on tenuous footing. To have the professor you confided in singled out, that’s pretty scary.”
Given this atmosphere, it’s unsurprising that some community members took offense to Vanden Bout’s words. Equally unsurprising, but far more disappointing, is Trinity’s decision to terminate her employment in response.
The freedom to be a full person
As a private college, Trinity is not bound by the First Amendment — under which Vanden Bout’s speech is clearly protected — but it is contractually bound by its own faculty handbook, which states that “when faculty members speak as citizens they are free from administrative or institutional censorship.”
Members of the public should be able to trust that what professors say in their personal capacity reflects their true opinions, not those of their institution.
Trinity flagrantly violated this promise.
“It is not possible to support faculty in their ability to develop their work in their own disciplines without respecting the freedom of that individual to be a full person,” said Vanden Bout, who believes that expressing her Christian faith, at times, requires using strong language that provokes discomfort. “There’s a theological and linguistic argument for using words that are sharp, that have an edge. Not for funsies, but to call things as they are."
There’s a free speech argument for that, too.
While extramural speech is distinct from speech which occurs in the classroom, it may still inform a professor’s thinking. And the freedom to engage controversial ideas without inhibition is particularly vital for a professor of philosophy, whose discipline involves grappling with questions of identity, existence, and reality itself. Limiting such speech to only that which is polite unacceptably narrows the bounds of inquiry.
Further, members of the public should be able to trust that what professors say in their personal capacity reflects their true opinions, not those of their institution. As Vanden Bout said, “If we’re going to grow individually, if we’re going to be a more just society, we need to confront even the messy things. We need more room for people to own what they really think and why, not what they’ve just heard from somebody.”
Even if we don’t like what someone really thinks, wouldn’t we rather know?
Trinity’s ethical obligation
It doesn’t take a philosophy degree to see that tying personal speech to professional standing poses a slew of ethical dilemmas. So in May 2021, FIRE detailed these issues in a letter to Trinity, calling on the school to affirm its commitment to expressive rights and reinstate Vanden Bout. Unfortunately, Trinity did not uphold its commitment and instead hid behind its status as a private, religious institution.
A year and a half later, we remain concerned about the state of free speech at Trinity and at many private colleges nationwide.
Reflecting on the events of 2021, Vanden Bout — now a community strategist and educator in the nonprofit sector — had this to say:
In retrospect, what is most striking to me is how often institutions appeal to higher values (like free speech, community, truth, justice, or love) in order to repress those values when they show up in inconvenient ways. Helping students identify this pattern in justice movements present and past could not prepare me for how disorienting it was to experience this from the community that helped form me.
FIRE is using every tool in our arsenal to make sure other professors are spared this experience. That’s why, in recent months, we’ve turned up the heat on private colleges who fail to live up to their own standards and those of their academic accreditors, filing formal complaints with those accrediting organizations. If colleges — even private colleges — expressly commit to free speech, like Trinity does, they must honor that commitment.
On the other hand, colleges that place values above free speech should explicitly say so in their policies and marketing materials, so students and faculty know what they are signing up for before associating with a given school. (For what it’s worth, we followed up with Kuecker about this issue. He said he disagreed that Trinity’s policies are unclear.)
Ultimately, we hope private colleges recognize that just because they can restrict free speech doesn’t mean they should. Their professors’ ability to teach, their students’ ability to learn, and their impact and reputation as educational institutions all depend on a foundation of free expression. When that foundation crumbles, the damage extends beyond the campus walls.