- University calls professor’s sarcastic post a ‘belligerent barb against whites’
NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J., Aug. 21, 2018 — It appears Rutgers University’s commitment to faculty First Amendment rights is no match for an online outrage mob.
Tenured professor of history James Livingston was found guilty of violating Rutgers’ Policy Prohibiting Discrimination and Harassment late last month for two sarcastic Facebook posts he wrote about gentrification in Harlem, the New York City neighborhood where he lives. The posts sparked outrage on social media and led to threats against Livingston, who is white.
After Rutgers rejected Livingston’s appeal of the finding against him, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education wrote Rutgers administrators late yesterday to demand that the public institution reverse the finding against Livingston immediately and protect faculty members’ constitutional right to speak as private citizens on matters of public concern.
Rutgers’ actions come at a time when the American Association of University Professors has voiced “increasing concerns about efforts to intimidate and harass faculty” online. In a 2017 report on the trend, the AAUP called on college administrators to “defend academic freedom and to condemn targeted harassment and intimidation of faculty members” — something that Rutgers has refused to do in Livingston’s case.
“By capitulating to anonymous outrage generated by an internet mob, Rutgers has shamefully betrayed its obligation to its faculty and the public, trivialized actual harassment, and signaled to would-be censors nationwide that its faculty may be silenced at will and without resistance,” wrote FIRE Director of Litigation Marieke Tuthill Beck-Coon in FIRE’s letter to the university.
Livingston’s predicament began May 31, during a visit to a Harlem restaurant. In a post to his personal Facebook account, Livingston expressed frustration with what he perceived to be growing gentrification in the neighborhood. He wrote, “OK, officially, I now hate white people. I am a white people, for God’s sake, but can we keep them–us–us out of my neighborhood?” He went on to write that the restaurant was “overrun with little Caucasian assholes” and said, “I hereby resign from my race.”
Facebook subsequently alerted Livingston that his post violated its Community Standards on “hate speech,” prompting him to write another post stating, “I just don’t want little Caucasians overrunning my life … remand them to the suburbs, where they and their parents can colonize every restaurant.”
On June 1, conservative website The Daily Caller reported on Livingston’s posts. Similar coverage soon followed in both local and national outlets, and Livingston reported to Rutgers that he started receiving hate mail and death threats.
Following an investigation, Livingston was found guilty of violating the Policy Prohibiting Discrimination and Harassment for his posts, even though Rutgers has been unable to demonstrate that any student or colleague ever filed a complaint with Rutgers asserting Livingston engaged in discriminatory conduct.
Rutgers actions violate Livingston’s First Amendment right to speak as a private citizen on issues of public concern. As the U.S. Supreme Court has held, “The First Amendment limits the ability of a public employer … to restrict, incidentally or intentionally, the liberties employees enjoy in their capacities as private citizens.” Rutgers’ Policy on Academic Freedom also explicitly states that “faculty members, as private citizens, enjoy the same freedoms of speech and expression as any private citizen and shall be free from institutional discipline in the exercise of these rights.”
Indeed, Rutgers President Robert Barchi has written eloquently about defending faculty speech, stating, “members of our community … are free to express their viewpoints in public forums as private citizens, including viewpoints that the University itself or I personally may not share.”
But that no longer seems to be the case, Tuthill Beck-Coon said.
“Rutgers has sent vigilante censors nationwide a dangerous signal: Attempts to silence faculty for protected speech will be successful, abetted by the Rutgers administration,” said Tuthill Beck-Coon. “To its shame, Rutgers has chosen to ‘feed the trolls’ by sacrificing the First Amendment rights of a faculty member to an outrage mob.”
Livingston said he hopes the university will reconsider the decision.
“I allowed FIRE to publicize this finding not simply on my own behalf, but because I believe the intellectual mission of Rutgers, a place to which I’ve devoted my career, is in peril, and being overridden for the sake of public relations,” said Livingston. “Allowing human resource administrators to tell a professor of 30 years what he can and can’t say on Facebook means that the tradition of academic freedom in our public universities is essentially over. I respect that tradition too much not to protest.”
“I’m also a fan of the Constitution, which is equally under assault here,” Livingston said. “I very much hope the university will see its way to overturning this finding of ‘reverse racism’ and reaffirming the democratic freedoms that Rutgers has long stood for.”
Rutgers University must stand firmly behind its faculty by reversing its finding against Livingston.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending and sustaining the individual rights of students and faculty members at America’s colleges and universities. These rights include freedom of speech, freedom of association, due process, legal equality, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience — the essential qualities of liberty.
Daniel Burnett, Communications Manager, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org