Where America’s day begins is also apparently where the First Amendment ends, as the University of Guam has punished a professor for political speech clearly protected by the Constitution. FIRE calls on the island university to rescind its punishment of professor Ron McNinch for sharing his opinions about Guam’s Nov. 8 election with students, colleagues, and the media.
Perhaps it’s easy for university administrators nearly 8,000 miles away from where the First Amendment was ratified to forget that, as bureaucrats at a public university in U.S. territory, they are legally bound to protect free speech. However, proximity to tax-free shopping and amazing weather does not damper UOG’s legal obligation to protect student and faculty expressive rights.
Enter Ron McNinch, associate professor of public administration and chair of public administration and legal studies at University of Guam. McNinch encouraged candidates in Guam’s Nov. 8 local elections to attend “The Great Debate” — a political forum for local candidates hosted at the university and organized by McNinch — and even offered to participate in the event in the candidates’ absence.
McNinch in fact criticized candidates for wavering in their attendance, emailing students and journalists: “Who ever does not show up will not win this election. It is just that simple. This is political calculus everyone can understand. . . . This is reality. Let everyone else play politics. The Great Debate will Go On! . . . Do not play with the University of Guam and our students!” McNinch also emailed fellow faculty members, encouraging them to “stay out of this election” and sharing his opinions on who would win in November.
This milquetoast political commentary somehow drew the ire of the university’s president, Thomas Krise, who punished McNinch for being “insulting, rude, and belligerent to the political candidates that were invited to participate in the Great Debate” (emphasis added). Krise also disciplined McNinch because his first email to “members of the public media” improperly used his “official UOG email account” with his university title, noting that “some recipients of these emails published news stories concerning the statements you made [in] the email and you either knew or should have known that they would do so.” Krise placed an official warning in McNinch’s file and required him to submit a development plan to avoid alleged policy violations in the future.
Krise has it completely backward — the First Amendment protects citizens from government censorship, not political candidates from criticism.
Notably, FIRE’s first case at Guam is also the first time we have seen a university president tell a professor he cannot insult those merely aspiring to hold political office. Krise has it completely backward — the First Amendment protects citizens from government censorship, not political candidates from criticism.
In FIRE’s Nov. 21 letter to University of Guam, we explained how the First Amendment’s protection of even hateful political expression is enshrined in our “profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.” Criticism of political candidates is at the very heart of any conception of free expression and receives the First Amendment’s strongest protection.
If you’re going to run for public office in America, whether for leader of an island territory or president of the United States, you will be criticized, sure as America’s day starts in Guam. Shielding political candidates from “insulting, rude, and belligerent” criticism muzzles the very people politicians are elected to serve. McNinch and his faculty colleagues have the First Amendment right to speak as private citizens on matters of public concern, including local elections.
FIRE calls on University of Guam to lift the punishment of McNinch for his clearly protected political speech, and to commit to upholding faculty expressive rights.
The university’s ban on faculty expression that amounts to “insulting, rude, or belligerent treatment of the public, students, or other University employees” is an additional affront to the First Amendment, and must be rescinded. Faculty may be disciplined for unprotected true threats, discriminatory harassment, or other criminal conduct, but merely offensive speech remains fully protected. UOG’s application of this policy to encompass speech about political candidates is a perfect example of why such vague, broad restrictions on faculty expression have no place at public universities bound by the First Amendment.
FIRE calls on University of Guam to lift the punishment of McNinch for his clearly protected political speech, and to commit to upholding faculty expressive rights by revising its policies to comply with the First Amendment.
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).