This Week in the News: Professors Under Fire

August 5, 2011

FIRE works to bring public awareness to the violations of free speech and academic freedom of students and faculty members on college campuses. This week, professors’ rights have been under the microscope.

Last Wednesday, FIRE wrote Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust after learning that a group of Harvard students had begun a petition calling on the university to fire economics professor Subramanian Swamy for an opinion piece he published in the Indian newspaper Daily News & Analysis in response to a July 13 terrorist bombing in Mumbai. The column makes several controversial suggestions about how to "negate the political goals of Islamic terrorism in India," including the ideas that India "[e]nact a national law prohibiting conversion from Hinduism to any other religion," "[r]emove the masjid [mosque] in Kashi Vishwanath temple and the 300 masjids at other temple sites," and "declare India a Hindu Rashtra [nation] in which non-Hindus can vote only if they proudly acknowledge that their ancestors were Hindus." While FIRE of course respects students’ right to protest the column, we are concerned that Dean Donald H. Pfister’s statement, "We will give this matter our serious attention," will unacceptably chill expression among members of Harvard’s community. Simply put, Swamy’s speech was protected, and there is nothing to investigate here.

The case sparked interest in The Atlantic Wire and The Daily Caller this week. It is additionally noteworthy that news of FIRE’s involvement has gone worldwide, appearing in the Times of IndiaDeccan Herald (India), Oman Tribune, North Korea Times, and elsewhere, mainly via an Indo-Asian News Service article based on an update in The Harvard Crimson, as Adam reported on Monday. We’ll keep you updated here on The Torch with further developments in this case.

In other news, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights’ (OCR) new mandate that colleges use a "preponderance of the evidence" standard of proof when adjudicating cases of alleged sexual harassment or assault is continuing to make waves, this time with the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). Last Wednesday, the AAUP joined FIRE in asking OCR to rescind the new mandate in a letter to the federal agency. The Daily Caller and National Review Online‘s Phi Beta Cons have the story.

But perhaps most noteworthy of all is the attention Peter Schmidt of The Chronicle of Higher Education brought to cases in which "casual references to violence" in the classroom have put professors on the hot seat, often with serious consequences. "Like airports, college campuses have become places where one can get a lot of negative attention by making any reference—no matter how offhand or joking—to having or intending to use a weapon," Schmidt says.

Among the cases listed in Schmidt’s thought-provoking article are several of FIRE’s, including Widener University School of Law Professor Lawrence Connell’s use of Dean Linda Ammons as a character in hypothetical discussions of homicide in his class; University of Oregon American Sign Language Instructor Peter Quint’s punishment without due process on the basis of a single classroom comment; and East Stroudsburg University Associate Professor of Sociology Gloria Y. Gadsden’s Facebook comments stating that she "didn’t want to kill even one student" that day. Schmidt reminds readers that "the quickness with which colleges are removing or disciplining faculty members who make such statements is troubling" to supporters of academic freedom on campus. Quite right.