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Update: Professor rescinds resignation over tweets; Weber State must end any investigation of protected speech

The Stewart Bell Tower at Weber State University.

The Stewart Bell Tower at Weber State University. (D.fletcher4/Wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0)

Two weeks after tenured professor Scott Senjo began the process of resigning after pressure from Weber State University, he has changed his mind: He will not resign. 

Now, the university will continue to investigate Senjo, whose tweets endorsing violence against journalists, protesters, and rioters went viral. The tweets, made outside of the classroom and consisting of his personal political views, are clearly protected by the First Amendment. Weber State, a public university, cannot and must not investigate protected speech.

The university launched an investigation into Senjo’s tweets on June 1, saying Weber State “honors the First Amendment Rights of free speech” — but apparently not enough to allow professors to actually exercise that free speech. The Utah university placed Senjo on administrative leave and allegedly asked for his resignation (which it denies). Senjo apologized for the tweets and resigned on June 3, citing the public outcry and saying he had “no other option.” After reconsidering, Senjo exercised his right to withdraw his resignation, as Weber State faculty members “have five business days after giving notice to change their mind,” according to a university spokesperson.

When students withdraw or professors resign under pressure, they risk giving up the opportunity to defend their own rights and protect expressive rights for their peers.

Senjo’s tweets drew rapid attention due to their criticism of reporters and protesters in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd. A black Wall Street Journal reporter tweeted about an interaction with a New York police officer, who the reporter said hit him in the face and pushed him to the ground. Senjo responded that if he were the officer, “you wouldn’t be able to tweet.” He also responded to a video of a police vehicle driving through a crowd of protesters with, “That’s not how I would have driven the car into the crowd.”

Though the violence Senjo tweeted about would not be legal, his tweets fall short of incitement or true threats — two of the few exceptions to the First Amendment. Hoping for, and even endorsing, violence is protected by the First Amendment. His tweets, however “abhorrent,” are protected speech. 

As my colleague Adam Steinbaugh wrote earlier this month, “when faculty members speak as private citizens on matters of public concern, a public university — a state institution bound by the First Amendment — cannot punish a professor’s extramural speech, even if it is deeply offensive to others. These legal and moral principles are what prevent universities from foreclosing on faculty members’ academic and expressive freedom whenever someone — whether a member of the public, a pundit, or a government official — finds their views offensive.”

FIRE wrote to Weber State on June 2, outlining the university’s First Amendment missteps and calling for the immediate cessation of any investigation. According to our letter:

In times of great societal upheaval and political turmoil, it is imperative that educational institutions remain firm in their commitments to freedom of expression. It’s easy to defend freedom of speech in the abstract, as we often see in flowery statements by university leaders. It is much harder to defend when challenged by speech that many, if not most people, find deeply offensive. 

FIRE is concerned about universities making rash decisions to launch investigations, ignore the First Amendment in public statements, and suspend professors. But nor should institutions pressure students to withdraw or for faculty to resign. Such resignation may be deemed involuntary, meaning the school may still be subject to liability for violating the First Amendment.

What’s more, when students withdraw or professors resign under pressure, they risk giving up the opportunity to defend their own rights and protect expressive rights for their peers. 

The university confirmed this week that Senjo rescinded his resignation, commenting that the university will continue with its review “of the impact of his Tweets on university operations.” 

If this is an investigation of Senjo, allow FIRE to save some time and taxpayer dollars: Weber State must live up to its obligations to protect the First Amendment rights of its students and faculty. Full stop. And while it is unclear what “impact” on the university Weber State is now analyzing, abstract concerns about its reputation are not a sufficient basis to override a faculty member’s First Amendment rights. Nor would it be appropriate for a public university to endorse the heckler’s veto by relying on the public’s expression of anger.

Of course, Senjo is not protected from the widespread criticism stemming from his views, but he is protected from the government (i.e., Weber State) violating his free speech rights. 

FIRE will continue to monitor the situation.

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