Pushed out of teaching, Central Michigan University journalism professor has his own story to write

Professor Timothy Boudreau settles with CMU — and speaks out for the first time.

May 8, 2021

Professor Timothy Boudreau sat at a table in a Mexican restaurant just off Central Michigan University’s campus. He looked around at his dinner guests. Munching on tortilla chips was a group not often seen at La Señorita restaurant, or anywhere, really. 

Joining Boudreau were a handful of his students, an outspoken Detroit Satanist — and five members of the controversial Westboro Baptist Church.

The unconventional bunch was refueling after a 2018 panel for Boudreau’s journalism law class. His goal: teach students about the importance of the First Amendment, using firsthand experiences from people whose speech is threatened. 

“I think students, college students in particular, should be challenged on their beliefs,” he told me last month from his home in Holland, Mich. “That’s why I brought in controversial speakers. I wanted to give them an opportunity to challenge those speakers. I firmly believe the answer to bad speech is better speech, or more speech.”

CMU campus (Map data ©2019 Google)

Boudreau graduated from CMU in 1981 and returned to teach after two decades as a journalist, rising to become the chair of CMU’s journalism department. He had a history of inviting people to class that the local newspaper called “radical,” twice inviting Westboro members to the public university in the classic college town of Mount Pleasant, Michigan, smack in the middle of the state. In 2011, he invited Quran-burning pastor Terry Jones, whom Boudreau called “a living, breathing example of many of the issues and concepts we discuss in class.” A local street preacher was also a common fixture. The Satanic Temple’s Jex Blackmore, known for organizing the largest Satanic gathering in history, was a more recent addition to his repertoire of radicals — each of whom tested the limits of protected speech in America.

That’s what Boudreau wanted his students to think critically about. Uncontroversial speakers don’t necessarily have to rely on the First Amendment. It’s the people on the fringes — attacked, vilified — who most depend on its protections to defend their rights, their very voices.

“Free speech champions aren’t always ‘cuddly’ types,” Boudreau told The Morning Sun a week before the 2018 panel. “Many of my students hope to be journalists when they leave CMU; this presentation is designed to remind them that it’s not just your right to free speech, it also protects Westboro’s right to celebrate a soldier’s death.”

But behind the scenes, Boudreau said CMU had grown annoyed with his invitations to controversial guest speakers. The Westboro panel was set across a backdrop of rising tensions involving speakers at colleges around the country. From 2016-2019, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education noted 145 instances of speakers who were either disinvited from a planned campus speech, or faced a serious disinvitation attempt. 

File:Westboro shirley phelps.jpgTo teach students about the First Amendment, Boudreau invited Shirley Phelps-Roper of Westboro Baptist Church to campus. (CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Administrators bristled when Boudreau invited to campus the matriarch of “the most hated family in America,” Shirley Phelps-Roper. They set restrictive parameters, barring media, making attendees show I.D., and forbidding students from recording the panel — all in the name of safety.

“We have to balance the pedagogy, the exchange of free thought, with figuring out how to keep people safe,” CMU administrator Dennis Armistead told a local newspaper. 

But Boudreau no longer wrangles with administrators to bring those speakers to campus. Nor does he introduce Quran burners or military funeral protesters or Satanic leaders to his students via Zoom. Today, he’s out of a job.

But Boudreau no longer wrangles with administrators to bring those speakers to campus. Nor does he introduce Quran burners or military funeral protesters or Satanic leaders to his students via Zoom.

Today, he’s out of a job.

The firestorm ignited by a former student posting a nine-second video and photos to social media quickly engulfed his career. The resulting investigation pushed him out of the profession he loves — and sparked a First Amendment controversy of its own, with Tim at the center.

His transgression: teaching students that sometimes even ugly speech is protected by the First Amendment.

And for that lesson, Boudreau drew right from CMU’s own history. 

CMU’s past provides a training ground

In November 1992, CMU’s head basketball coach told his mostly-black team that he wanted the players to “play like niggers on the court,” but not to act like “niggers in the classroom.” In a locker room pep talk a few months later, he told his players they hadn’t played very well and asked them if they minded his use of “the N-word.” 

“You know we need to have more niggers on our team,” he told them.

The coach said he used the term in a “positive and reinforcing” manner, which was backed up by black members of the team who reported not being offended by the word’s use. But as outrage spread amongst students and alumni, he was fired.

The coach filed a lawsuit in 1993. The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit rejected some of his claims, deciding the remarks were not protected because they “served to advance no academic message.” At the same time, it struck down as unconstitutional one of the speech policies CMU cited in firing the coach.

First Amendment cases can be tricky, turning on details Boudreau felt were important to explore with his students — especially in a journalism law class.

A national issue

FIRE defends professors fired or threatened with investigations for mentioning or displaying the slur in their teaching. 

File:James Baldwin 37 Allan Warren.jpgA professor at The New School was charged with racial discrimination for quoting iconic black writer James Baldwin. (CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)

An Emory University professor faced termination for more than a year after referencing the N-word in early 2019 while discussing systemic racism with students. At the same time, The New School in New York City charged a professor with racial discrimination for quoting iconic black writer James Baldwin’s use of the term during a discussion about why documentary filmmakers altered Baldwin’s word choice.

FIRE advocated on behalf of both professors, and both returned to the classroom. 

More recently, a UCLA professor came under heavy criticism for reading from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” which includes the use of racial slurs.

And FIRE is still fighting for a Duquesne University professor fired for saying the word during a class discussion about why its use is inappropriate in most contexts.

Mentioning racial or other slurs in a relevant academic setting is generally protected by the First Amendment and faculty members’ academic freedom rights, even if students find those materials upsetting or offensive. FIRE takes no position on whether professors should use the term — it’s up to professors to thoughtfully determine whether its use is germane to their instruction. And, if they decide it is relevant, how should they approach materials, language, and images that students might find difficult or offensive?

These are questions that Boudreau considered in his own teaching. But on June 22, 2020, an alumna, who graduated the year before, posted a nine-second video to Instagram of Boudreau teaching his class about the First Amendment decision from the Sixth Circuit and quoting the opinion and the CMU basketball coach’s use of the slur.

A student's Instagram post criticized Boudreau's mentions of slurs deemed protected by the Supreme Court in another case he taught, Matal v. Tam, about disparaging trademarks.

She also posted a photo of Boudreau’s presentation, which depicted examples of some of the trademark applications that followed the Supreme Court’s ruling in Matal v. Tam, about disparaging trademarks. Examples include “nigga,” “dicksbymail,” and “good shit.”

“Since we are exposing racists, let me introduce you to @cmuniversity professor Tim Boudreau who freely uses the n-word in class whether it be providing examples or quoting an individual,” she wrote.

Word spread quickly, and both detractors and supporters spoke out. Some believed the term should never be used, full stop. Others thought it depended on the context. Students came forward too.

Tess DeGayner, enrolled in Boudreau’s course the previous semester, told the student newspaper that Boudreau warned students he’d quote racial slurs during a February 2020 discussion about the CMU basketball coach. 

“After that warning, someone sitting behind me had asked Tim not to say the slur, but to instead skip over the word. So he didn’t say it,” she told the paper. “But the statement from the former CMU coach was still up on the board.”

Boudreau believes decisions about how to teach the highly-specific details of First Amendment cases should be left up to instructors, who are closest to the students.

“They shouldn’t be made by bureaucrats who have never taught a course in their life, who have never stood in front of the classroom,” he said.

Two days after the video circulated, CMU responded through its Instagram account, pledging an investigation. 

On June 24, the provost called Boudreau, who was granted tenure in 2007, to inform him of the investigation. After 15 years teaching media law to 1,500 students — and not a single complaint to his knowledge — Boudreau assumed he’d be able to give context to the clip and move on. 

So he was surprised when the provost asked him to apologize and vow never to use the term again in the classroom. The former, he’d happily do. The latter went against his beliefs on how to teach First Amendment law. He agreed to “weigh very carefully” its use in the future. But a blanket ban? 

“The very nature of the course involves offense, often ugly language,” he said. “That’s inevitable. I don’t know how you can teach the course effectively while dancing around those terms.”

But if he was surprised before, he was stunned when CMU made its next move.

“I heard nothing back. Two hours later, I was suspended from the university, told to stay away from campus, from students, turn in my I.D.,” he said. “I felt like I was a criminal.”

“I heard nothing back. Two hours later, I was suspended from the university, told to stay away from campus, from students, turn in my I.D.,” he said. “I felt like I was a criminal.”

Boudreau had unceremoniously joined the ranks of speakers he had taught about for a decade and a half: those who faced punishment for their speech. 

CMU suspended him pending a formal investigation. One question remained. 

How to fight back?

Boudreau enlists FIRE to defend his rights

Boudreau was familiar with FIRE’s work to defend speakers threatened with shut-downs or cancellations. He’d cited some of those cases in his classes.

So on June 24, he submitted a case to FIRE about the violations of his rights. FIRE agreed to represent Boudreau and worked in tandem with his union counsel, threatening a lawsuit if CMU didn’t live up to its promises of academic freedom and its obligations under the First Amendment. 

“Timothy would have welcomed an open dialogue about the use of slurs in class and perhaps changed his views if students came forward with compelling reasons for never using them,” said FIRE attorney Greg H. Greubel, who represented Boudreau. “However, the CMU community never got the opportunity to have that thoughtful discussion because administrators cared more about their social media presence than free and open debate.”

Greubel also noted that no one ever filed a discrimination complaint against Boudreau.

“Universities have a legal and moral obligation to prevent discrimination on campus, but that difficult task cannot be accomplished in an atmosphere where one social media post is given more weight than a professor’s entire career,” Greubel said.

Boudreau calls it manufactured outrage: “It was performative, designed to safeguard its image as a ‘safe’ campus — even at the cost of academic freedom.”

On Aug. 17, CMU finalized a lengthy investigative report into Boudreau’s mention of the slur. At the helm was Dennis Armistead — the same administrator who clashed with Boudreau over bringing controversial speakers to campus. The same disagreements, the same power struggle.

CMU’s report faults Boudreau for creating a hostile learning environment by not only vocalizing, but displaying “the N-word (and other uncensored racial and homophobic slurs)” in his teaching of First Amendment cases and failing to provide “trigger warnings.”

Armistead usurped Boudreau’s academic freedom rights, deciding for Boudreau, and all CMU faculty, apparently, that the use of the slur falls outside of the protection of academic freedom and the First Amendment.

Armistead’s report criticized Boudreau for citing a case that disparages CMU rather than an earlier case on speech codes at another university. He also suggested Boudreau only used the full term for “titillation,” writing that Boudreau used it for “personal amusement,” and “personal indulgence of a whim, a thrill, a frolic” — rather than a desire to teach the First Amendment without distortion or sanitization. 

In his research to determine whether mentioning the slur rises to the level of misconduct, Armistead turned to Google. The report criticizes Boudreau for not Googling resources about the use of the slur, faulting Boudreau for not having discovered a resource intended for teaching high schoolers and elementary school children. In laying out the Google search results found by searching for “literature review on teaching the N-word,” Armistead’s report included a PBS guide to teaching Huck Finn to K-12 students. The PBS guide inconveniently uses the word it confronts, so Armistead redacted it from the Google search results copied into his report. Nevermind that the PBS guide recognizes that different educators — even in middle and high school classrooms — come to different conclusions about whether to use the word.   

His ultimate ruling: CMU’s faith in Boudreau had been“irrevocably shaken and its ability to faithfully trust future students to his care and mentoring is forever fractured.”

With an empty nod to CMU’s appreciation of academic freedom, Armistead recommended Boudreau be terminated. On Sept. 1, CMU obliged.

Fired for quoting a judicial opinion: ‘It is ridiculous.’

“Tim has a deep philosophical belief about the importance of accurately depicting academic texts and judicial opinions,” Greubel said. “For CMU to terminate him because he was accurately quoting the university’s former basketball coach in a judicial opinion is as unconstitutional as it is ridiculous.”

Equally ridiculous: his portrayal by the university as someone who used the term loosely and without a thoughtful look at its history. Boudreau calls that characterization ludicrous. 

For years, Boudreau volunteered to identify recipients of CMU’s prestigious Lem Tucker Scholarship. The scholarship honored the university’s first black student body president, who “made an enormous contribution to journalism by promoting the participation and success of minorities in print and electronic media, as well as general excellence in the practice of journalism.”

He is proud of that work: hundreds of hours to identify and reward exceptional students. That’s how you make a real difference fighting racism on campus, rather than symbolic actions like firing professors for teaching First Amendment law, he said.

Boudreau said one of those scholarship recipients summed up Boudreau’s style better than he can: “trying to replicate the courtroom in the classroom.”

Using the unedited, jarring language “reflects his journalistic values of presenting the facts in their unvarnished — and often ugly — reality, and to help students understand just how radical the First Amendment is,” according to his appeal filed in September.

In the appeal, FIRE and Boudreau’s union counsel argued that the term played “a key role” in the case he was teaching, and that firing a tenured professor for discussing relevant materials is a violation of academic freedom’s core principles.

CMU denied the appeal a month later. The one-page letter was signed by a familiar name: Dennis Armistead. 

‘I felt like throwing in the towel and just giving up’

FIRE continued to fight on Boudreau’s behalf. 

“I knew FIRE had my back, so to speak, that they were going to defend me right to the bitter end,” he said.

“I knew FIRE had my back, so to speak, that they were going to defend me right to the bitter end,” he said. “There were times I really felt down, felt miserable. I felt like throwing in the towel and just giving up. They are a great ally to have, a tremendous ally.”

In February, Boudreau entered into a settlement agreement with CMU. Eugene Volokh of the Volokh Conspiracy at Reason reported the terms today. 

Boudreau cannot comment on the terms of the settlement, but can speak out against how his university treats academic freedom — and those who dare exercise it.

He remains concerned that faculty will be afraid to engage “openly and candidly with any ugly topics out there — but important topics. Whether it’s racism, sexism, political issues — any number of topics that routinely come up, and should come up, on a college campus.”

Boudreau worries CMU is creating a climate where only certain viewpoints are considered within the bounds of academic freedom. And if CMU has a list of verboten words, he wants to see it. 

“You have to ask how far CMU might go in policing speech on campus,” he said. “Would it punish the student newspaper for quoting ‘offensive’ language? Should the university issue an index of acceptable terms? Would those speech restrictions apply across campus or only to select groups? Should a professor teaching a diversity or literature class scrub lectures and course materials of all potentially offensive terms?”

Boudreau said he’s relieved to tell his story, but other faculty members at CMU and elsewhere remain in the dark about how far their institutions’ free speech and academic freedom promises go. The “climate of fear and confusion” is a classic chilling effect, he said.

Boudreau said CMU's actions will make other professors hesitant to teach difficult subjects. LaTanya Jara, Circle Image Photography

“They’ll be reluctant to challenge the conventional wisdom,” he said. “And God forbid: they’ll never want to make their students uncomfortable or challenge their beliefs. I think when they do that, we really lose something in our education.”

It’s a serious problem. Around the country, professors are routinely expelled from the classroom for their beliefs. 

This year, two professors at Texas’ Collin College are out after criticizing its COVID-19 reopening plan, and a third for a critical tweet about Mike Pence. A professor at the University of San Diego School of Law faced a months-long investigation for a post on his personal blog critical of the Chinese government. A Syracuse University professor was finally reinstated after a five month suspension for joking about the “Wuhan Flu.” And at Georgetown University, two professors are gone after a mere conversation about whether there was unconscious bias in their grading. 

Defending faculty speech is a growing segment of FIRE’s work. Today, almost 30% of FIRE’s cases focus on faculty speech, despite faculty being vastly outnumbered by students. The problem is so large that FIRE just launched a Faculty Legal Defense Fund so professors don’t have to worry about legal fees when they’re fighting for their livelihoods.

Ronnie London, the First Amendment Lawyers Association national chair who leads FIRE’s effort, said he sees his role as a “first responder” for faculty members — the first one to call when the censors come knocking.

Opening the door to a post-CMU future

Boudreau has no desire to return to the classroom — particularly not one at CMU. He’s concerned by how quickly a professor can go from engaging in the profession they love, to feeling like a criminal. All without ever committing a crime.

Now, he thinks about where he’ll go next. He still wants to prove to people that you can speak to your opponents, rather than cancel them. You can have your differences and still see the humanity in someone you disagree with. It’s a notion he says is sorely lacking today. 

“One of the things I wanted my students to take away from these experiences is that people aren’t cartoon characters,” he said. “They’re real human beings. They’re multidimensional. While you may disagree wholeheartedly with their beliefs — that’s not all there is to them.”

It’s the lesson he tried to teach at La Señorita, where the conversation could have gotten as heated as the fajitas sizzling in the kitchen. 

He said Shirley Phelps-Roper, the other Westboro members, the Satanist, and the students were friendly with each other. Several known for holding signs like “God hates fags” and “Thank God for dead soldiers.” Another known for Satanic rituals, protesting against abortion restrictions, and once belonging to the group that performed gay committment ceremonies over the grave of Phelps-Roper’s grandmother. 

Their differences, immense. But to Boudreau, it appeared at least that they saw each other’s common humanity. In the end, Phelps-Roper of “the most hated family in America” quietly paid the check for the entire group. 

Friends? Probably not.

But fellow humans? It’s a start.

“I disagree with probably 99.99% of what Shirley and Westboro Baptist believe, but we managed to get along and treat people with respect,” Boudreau said. “It doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t argue vehemently against what they’re promoting, but it does suggest that there’s more to it than what we see in the media.”

It’s the lesson he tried to teach for 15 years, one CMU administrators never really grasped. 

“We all talk about free speech, but when you exercise it, when you engage in it in the United States, there’s a price,” he said. “You pay a price. Freedom isn’t free. Well — free speech isn’t either. It can cost you. It can hurt.”