To show his students democracy in action, University of Guam professor Ron McNinch attempted to organize “The Great Debate” featuring candidates squaring off in the island’s November 2022 election. Despite McNinch’s admirable drive to bring the political process to his students, his university punished him for being “rude” to the candidates when they refused to attend the debate, which was eventually canceled. Nearly six months later, after several rounds of university appeals and FIRE advocacy defending McNinch’s core First Amendment right to political speech, the University of Guam has finally relented, rescinding all punishment related to the debate.
This welcome result comes far too late to dispel the chilling effect of sanctioning a professor for criticizing political candidates. Guam may be far removed from the states geographically, but UOG is still an American public university fully bound by the First Amendment, which protects the right to insult those running for office. Professors, especially those seeking to foster political debate, have the expressive right to comment on public issues in their private capacity.
But UOG spent six months fighting McNinch on this point.
Public universities must recognize when their actions violate faculty free speech rights and immediately rectify those violations when brought to their attention.
It all started in October 2022, when candidates for the debate wavered in their attendance, prompting McNinch issued a challenge to them by email: “Who ever [sic] 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!” His email to students, faculty, and the media did not sit well with the then-university president, who issued him a “Letter of Warning” for being “insulting, rude, and belligerent to the political candidates that were invited to participate in the Great Debate.”
That’s right — the university disciplined McNinch for offending the candidates. This is the opposite of how the First Amendment is supposed to work: Free speech protects the public from state censorship, not politicians from the public’s criticism. As the Supreme Court has proclaimed, which we shared with UOG in our letter:
“Whatever differences may exist about interpretations of the First Amendment, there is practically universal agreement that a major purpose of that Amendment was to protect the free discussion of governmental affairs.” Criticism of political candidates is undoubtedly “core political speech” at the very heart of any conception of free expression, and is where First Amendment protection is “at its zenith.”
In a terse reply, UOG denied any allegation of wrongdoing. But McNinch and FIRE did not give up. He appealed the ruling through internal university channels and FIRE sent another letter explaining how “UOG seems content in baselessly asserting that the First Amendment does not apply to the university’s actions.” This met no response from the university except its denial of McNinch’s appeal in a bizarre 79-page ruling claiming that his free speech claim “has no merit.”
A new year and a fresh round of appeals finally vindicated McNinch. In April, a UOG disciplinary committee removed the warning letter from his file. Helpfully, the committee also called on UOG to implement a standard disclaimer indicating that faculty are speaking in their personal capacities unless otherwise specified, reflecting their First Amendment right to speak on societal issues as private citizens. The university forwent its appeal in May, finalizing this latest decision.
McNinch is glad this ordeal is over, but told FIRE how disheartening it is to see his university repeatedly accuse him of wrongdoing despite the obvious First Amendment issues at stake. “I also encourage all faculty members to be vigilant and defend the free speech rights of professors and students,” said McNinch. “You don’t have to agree with the speech, but we should allow the marketplace of ideas to be the standard.”
FIRE commends McNinch on his persistence in standing up for his rights, without which UOG would never have reversed its decision. However, the university’s recalcitrance in recognizing his First Amendment rights cannot be excused. Public universities must recognize when their actions violate faculty free speech rights and immediately rectify those violations when brought to their attention. Professors should not have to go to such great lengths to assert their fundamental right to express core political speech.
But when they do, FIRE will have their back.
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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