Latest News and Commentary: National

May 5, 2021
By Sabrina Conza
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education

Excerpt: Last fall, FIRE discovered that the University of Oklahoma was running an online mandatory diversity training program for faculty and staff members — including some graduate students — that required trainees to acknowledge their agreements with the university’s approved political viewpoints in order to complete the requirement. FIRE pointed out that this was compelled political speech and asked OU to change the training. In an email to FIRE last week, OU officially refused to do so.

In its email to FIRE, the university also pledged to “continue to monitor its training efforts while continuing to advance the university’s work of engaging community members in a meaningful learning experience with the goal of fostering a more inclusive campus community.” It would be so easy to fix this problem that OU’s refusal to do so suggests that, in fact, the compelled speech is the point of the exercise.

 

May 5, 2021
By Keith E. Whittington
Reason

Excerpt: The AFA is an ideologically diverse group of over 200 academics dedicated to the defense of professorial free speech and academic freedom at American universities. We provide solidarity and legal resources in cases in which an academic has been threatened with sanctions for their speech that is protected by constitutional, statutory, or contractual rights.

In the past few days, we have achieved victories in two early cases. At the University of Rhode Island, campus administrators have finally admitted that AFA founding member Professor Donna Hughes's personal political writings are protected speech and cannot be the basis for sanctions by her public university employer. At the University of San Diego, the provost has issued a public statement ending the unnecessary investigation of Professor Tom Smith's personal blog post. Neither case should have proceeded as far as it did.

May 4, 2021
By Andrew Sasser
The Dartmouth

Summary: Two bills in New Hampshire’s legislature have recently come under fire from a variety of educators and other groups within the state, including Dartmouth University. House Bill 2, the state’s annual must-pass budget bill, would forbid local government, state-funded schools and universities, and associated contractors, from teaching employees or students about “divisive concepts.” House Bill 111 would repeal “official immunity” liability protections for state public officials acting in good faith. Both measures have been criticized on the grounds that they will unduly restrict what concepts can be taught in schools and could open up teachers and other officials to spurious lawsuits simply for doing their jobs.

May 4, 2021
By Eugene Volokh
The Volokh Conspiracy, Reason

Excerpt: From Provost Gail F. Baker:

    We recently received complaints relating to a post by USD Law Professor Tom Smith on his personal blog concerning the causes of COVID-19. The complaints alleged violations of various university and School of Law policies.

    As a threshold matter, we sought to determine whether the blog post at issue was protected by our policy on academic freedom. After a thorough legal review, it was determined that the expression was protected by that policy.

    This conclusion in no way amounts to an endorsement by the university of the opinions shared in the blog post.

    Academic freedom lies at the core of the mission of the University of San Diego. At the same time, we are committed to providing an educational environment that honors the dignity of every individual. Those two commitments can and must co-exist. It is important that members of the university community exercise their freedom in a responsible fashion, attentive to the impact of their protected opinions and sensitive to all members of the community, especially those who may feel vulnerable, marginalized or fearful that they are not welcomed. Members of the university community may feel an obligation, and certainly have the freedom to criticize opinions that they believe demean the dignity of others.

I would have much liked to see a stronger defense of academic freedom. Still, the result is correct.

May 4, 2021
By Stratton Marsh
Cavalier Daily

Summary: The University of Virginia’s Committee on Free Expression and Inquiry recently held a listening session to hear community members’ opinions on the state of free expression at the University. While alumni and parents present at the discussion primarily voiced concern over perceived censorship in the classroom and harassment of students with different views, current students took a different view. These students pushed back what they saw as the conflation of criticism during classroom discussions with censorship. Students also called attention to a double standard, as many alumni and parents called for censorship when eight residents on UVA’s central Lawn posted “f—k UVA” signs on their door as a social justice protest. While these students say that they support free speech, they insist that the University’s conception of it cannot be solely informed by the political ideology of its donors and alumni.

 

May 3, 2021
By Eugene Volokh
Reason

Excerpt: Racial, ethnic and sexist slurs appear in over 10,000 court cases available on Westlaw, as well as a vast number of briefs and other court filings (most of which aren't even visible on Westlaw).

Unsurprisingly, after class last Fall, a student at Rutgers Law School in New Jersey asked a professor about one of those 10,000+ cases—State v. Bridges (1993), decided by the New Jersey Supreme Court.

The student quoted the word, I take it on the sensible theory that, when you're studying court cases, you're entitled to talk accurately about what those court cases say. And the material appears to have been quite closely linked to the topic of the discussion ("the circumstances under which a criminal defendant could be held liable for crimes committed by his co-conspirators").

In early April, in response to the incident, a group of Black first-year students at Rutgers Law began circulating a petition calling for the creation of a policy on racial slurs and formal, public apologies from the student and the professor, Vera Bergelson.

 

 

May 3, 2021
By Tracey Tully
New York Times

Summary: Five months after a white student repeated a racial epithet while quoting a 1993 legal opinion, New Jersey’s public Rutgers Law School has been embroiled in a series of free speech and racial debates. Black students, as well as other students and faculty members demand that the school adopt a policy forbidding the use of racial epithets in class, even if such words are cited verbatim in legal opinions or other documents. Others believe that such a policy would be unconstitutional and obfuscates the slurs’ dark history.

May 3, 2021
By David Palumbo-Liu
Inside Higher Ed

Excerpt: The case of Daniel Pollack-Pelzner, a noted Shakespearean scholar and, until recently, the Ronni Lacroute Chair in Shakespeare Studies at Linfield University, has quickly drawn attention to how a university administration and its Board of Trustees can feel entitled to bypass due process and substitute for it corporate protocols that even as such seem ethically problematic. Pollack-Pelzner, who has been a sharp critic of Linfield’s responses to sexual harassment and who has raised serious charges of anti-Semitism, has been fired for being “insubordinate.”

Linfield has denied Pollack-Pelzner a hearing, it has denied him due process and it has denied him the right to appeal. All on the basis of its own administrative judgment. This case has all the earmarks of a whistle-blower being silenced for being too insistent in their complaints.

May 3, 2021
By Evan Gerstmann
Forbes

Excerpt: A debate has erupted at a New Jersey law school about a white student’s quoting a line of a court case that includes the N-word. This is an increasingly important debate. It may seem simple for people to avoid using this one offending word. However, vague policies coupled with rapidly evolving, poorly communicated changes in what is considered acceptable language, lack of fair process, an atmosphere of fear and a punitive mindset have combined to create a serious threat to academic freedom, intellectual diversity and free speech on campus.

It is certainly true that students should be protected from personal attacks and gratuitous use of highly offensive words. But they also need to be protected from punitive actions based on vague standards and procedures that chill freedom of expression and make necessary conversations much harder.

 

May 2, 2021
By Ian Max Stevenson
Idaho Statesman

Excerpt: Students at Boise State University in Idaho have begun rallying and organizing against recently-passed laws and other pieces of legislation that target state education curricula and funding. These include House Bill 377, which seeks to curb the teaching of critical race theory in Idaho’s public school system, as well as education appropriations bills that entail a $2.5 million shortfall from Governor Brad Little’s request. This budget shortfall is seen as potentially dangerous to the state’s ability to provide an effective education to students, but is perceived by some to be an attack on academic freedom in Idaho’s public schools. University administrators may demur from teaching critical race theory and other unpopular concepts if they believe that such efforts could lead to further funding cuts from Idaho’s state legislature.