It has long been FIRE’s position that professors have every protection of the First Amendment in their public statements and scholarship. FIRE has released statements defending the rights of Professors Ward Churchill and Sami Al-Arian to express their controversial views publicly. Universities do have a prerogative to regulate professors’ speech within the classroom to a certain extent; for example, a professor teaching a calculus class could be forbidden from substituting lectures on American foreign policy for lectures on derivatives. However, some non-mathematics related expression must be acceptable if academic freedom is to be preserved. Last year FIRE defended Professor Peter Ratener at Bellevue Community College for an exam question that some students found racially insensitive.
Over the last month and a half, a similar case has unfolded at the University of Connecticut School of Law, where Professor Robert L. Birmingham was asked to take a leave of absence for a series of incidents in his “Remedies” class. According to the Hartford Courant, “Birmingham reportedly posed the question of whether African Americans had it better as slaves in the U.S. than their counterparts in West Africa.”
Later, he showed a tape of a recording of an interview with a convicted pimp. After the interview, Birmingham paused the tape just as the image of a scantily clad woman appeared on the screen. Many of the students were offended and the incident became a campus-wide concern with students complaining on a variety of websites (although the university received no official complaints). Nevertheless, Dean Jeremy Paul asked Birmingham to take a leave of absence and held a forum for students to express their views on the issue. Paul’s stated reason for these actions was that he wanted to be sure that all students in the law school felt comfortable.
Birmingham is slated to teach three courses in the spring, but he has been stripped of the “Feminist Legal Theory” class he was scheduled to teach. Law.com reports that Paul said,
I wish to emphasize my unshakeable commitment to creating a learning environment where students and teachers alike feel free to explore issues and express controversial viewpoints. I feel equally strongly that professors entrusted with the education of aspiring attorneys have an obligation to run a classroom where no one feels he or she is unwelcome as a result of race, gender, religion, age, sexual orientation, or on account of a disability…. each member of the faculty, including me, bears a special burden to choose course materials and to prepare ourselves to handle discussions of volatile topics, such as race, in ways that clearly champion the right of every person in the class to participate in the discussion and ultimately to join the legal community.
We are happy that Birmingham has been restored to his position but thoroughly annoyed that he was asked to take a leave of absence in the first place. Known as a controversial lecturer, Birmingham often took unconventional steps to stir up discussion. In this case, his comments were clearly of pedagogical concern and it is possible that even a non-accidental pausing of the video on the image of a scantily clad woman could have served to prove a point made in his lecture. At any rate, academic freedom and common sense surely dictate that he should not have been punished.