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Ohio Northern University promises its professors free expression in one hand, takes it away with the other

By July 20, 2017

Ohio Northern University tells its professors they are entitled to free expression. But ONU is talking out of both sides of its mouth, and its faculty handbook (password protected) contains several concerning provisions that place untenable restrictions on the free expression of its faculty, directly contradicting that commitment.

FIRE has written to ONU twice to urge it to revise its guidelines so ONU can follow through on its commitment to free speech. In October 2016, we wrote to ONU to express our concern about the “Faculty Expectations” provision of the handbook, which states, in relevant part:

Faculty are expected to comply with institutional rules or policies requiring confidentiality concerning oral or written communications. In particular, faculty must respect the confidentiality of personnel matters, evaluations of student performance, and matters of departmental, college or university finance, governance or assessment. These expectations are in addition to any requirement of confidentiality or privacy imposed by law or regulation.

As my colleague Laura Beltz, a program officer in our Policy Reform department, noted in her October letter, while confidentiality is important, ONU’s policy is so broad that it leaves a reasonable person unable to know its full scope. It also explicitly prohibits speech on matters of core importance by foreclosing the discussion of “matters of departmental, college or university finance, governance or assessment.” That language could allow a professor to be punished for criticizing the way the university is run; such a result is unacceptable. Although ONU is a private institution and therefore not legally bound by the First Amendment, it promises its professors free expression. Section 2.2, ¶ 2 of the handbook states, in relevant part, that

[a] faculty member is entitled to freely study, discuss, investigate, teach and publish. . . . As a member of the community, the faculty member has the rights and obligations of any citizen.

That’s a laudable promise, and one to which ONU must live up.

We didn’t hear back from ONU after our October letter, however, so Laura wrote them again on May 23 of this year. Unfortunately, since our October letter, we also discovered two additional new sections of the handbook that could be used to punish professors for protected speech, contravening ONU’s promise of free speech. Section 2.3, ¶ 4, “Responsibilities to Colleagues,” specifies that “[f]aculty members are expected to treat colleagues and staff with civility and respect . . . .” This presents significant problems, as Laura detailed in our second letter:

This policy may seem innocuous in intent, but in practice it chills academic discourse and scholarship. Freedom of speech and academic freedom do not simply protect speech that is not controversial. On the contrary, controversial speech is that which needs the most protection, and the Supreme Court has held as much: “the mere dissemination of ideas—no matter how offensive to good taste—on a state university campus may not be shut off in the name alone of ‘conventions of decency.’” Papish v. Board of Curators of the University of Missouri, 410 U.S. 667, 670 (1973).

ONU giveth with one hand and taketh with the other. It cannot maintain one policy giving its faculty the freedom of expression they need to do their jobs and simultaneously maintain another policy — however seemingly innocuous — that requires them to self-censor.

Think about your favorite professors. What makes you like them? Mine all have one major trait in common: passion. Professors who teach with passion inspire their students and their colleagues to do great things in the pursuit of truth. Passion in teaching challenges students to think in new ways, to confront new topics, to be better. Passion is persuasive. Without it, professors cannot effectively do their jobs. But ONU’s policy requires professors to eschew passion in favor of however the school’s administration decides to define politeness.

To top it off, ONU is possibly retroactively applying a new post-tenure review process, which would evaluate professors to determine if they can maintain tenure. This is concerning, because retroactive application fails to put professors on notice for what conduct is permissible and what is not. It opens the door for ONU to make arbitrary determinations about what should be allowed, and apply that to anything a professor has ever done or said, whether or not it was allowed at the time it happened. With this post-tenure review, ONU is pushing its professors to greater self-censorship. Faculty must fear running afoul of any policies ONU has in place now, as well as any more overbroad policies of which it could conceive in the future.

If ONU wants to live up to its stated commitment to free expression, it must revise these policies immediately. FIRE remains disappointed by ONU’s lack of response to our letters, but still stands by ready to help ONU with the necessary revisions.