This is a guest post by Tim Shiell, a contributor to the newest issue of the Journal of Academic Freedom. Shiell is a Professor of Philosophy and founder and Associate Director of the Center for Applied Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. He primarily teaches ethics courses and researches issues at the intersection of law, ethics and politics, in particular, freedom of speech and academic freedom. He is the author of Legal Philosophy: Selected Readings and Campus Hate Speech on Trial, as well as numerous articles and book chapters.
Given the unsettling statistics regarding the general lack of knowledge of and concern for First Amendment rights (see, for example, the Speech Code Reports by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the First Amendment Center’s State of the First Amendment Reports), it should come as no surprise that free speech at U.S. institutions of higher education is continually threatened. A lack of free speech knowledge or leadership makes an institution particularly vulnerable to violations, but they can happen on any campus.
For example, despite a good historical record of protecting free expression, my own campus (University of Wisconsin-Stout) made national news in 2011 with the notorious “Firefly Case” in which administration wrongly removed a theater professor’s innocuous posters as “threats” and would have taken further action against him until a vociferous outcry forced the administration to back off. (See https://academeblog.org/tag/james-miller/ and http://www.thefire.org/cases/university-of-wisconsin-stout-censorship-referral-to-threat-assessment-team-and-threat-of-criminal-charges-after-professor-puts-posters-outside-office-door/) The silver lining to that dark cloud was that it led to the formation of a First Amendment Committee dedicated to educating the campus and protecting free speech rights. http://www.uwstout.edu/ethicscenter/Resources.cfm In its brief tenure, the committee has already answered dozens of inquiries and headed off several potential firestorms.
My contribution to the 2014 issue of the Journal of Academic Freedom describes a case in which a violation of campus free speech almost went under the radar, and raises serious worries about administrators and faculty who fail not only to understand free speech but even are willing to knowingly violate it. But how many violations go unnoticed or are not resisted?
We need to support the efforts of organizations like the AAUP that actively educate and empower professors (and others) to protect free speech. They cannot do their work effectively without individuals also doing their part. What are you doing to help keep your campus safe for free speech?
Note: A fuller discussion of this topic may be found in the 2014 issue of the Journal of Academic Freedom in “The Case of the Student Racist Facebook Message,” an essay by Tim Shiell.