Getting to “know” other academics on Twitter is a very strange process. First you follow the ones you know. Then you follow the most interesting people who they “know,” and by then other folks who they follow who you don’t know have started following you.
One of the people I’ve gotten to “know” through this process is an MIT literature professor named Noel Jackson. Throughout this semester, me and about 3000 of his “friends” (to borrow a term from another social media platform) have been watching an absolutely horrifying story unfold on his Twitter feed. As far as I know, this story from today’s Daily Beast is the first time that anything about it has appeared in the mainstream media:
Turns out, someone was apparently paying attention to his tweets. The next day, Jackson fired off a tweet before 9 am: “I was roused from bed this morning by 4-6 cops and am now at MGH [Massachusetts General Hospital]—presumably so they can check my #academicreedom levels…”
In subsequent tweets, Jackson claimed he was given no paperwork or explanation for his medical detention, and warned: “Just putting the word out there… Your institution will do you in EXACTLY THE SAME WAY (if you dare to say something)”
Then—after a stream of non-stop tweeting—Jackson’s Twitter account went conspicuously silent. Five days later, he reappeared, saying he was doing well but had been placed in the hospital by MIT. “I was section 12’d by my employer. This was the unexpected but not altogether unsurprising end to my experiment in excitable speech.”
Read the whole thing and you’ll see that the original context of the controversy was Ferguson, but with respect to academic freedom that fact is, of course, completely irrelevant. For those of you may also follow Noel on Twitter, the big takeaway from this story is an explanation of what “Section 12” is:
The law under which Jackson was allegedly hospitalized is presumably the 12th section of the Massachusetts General Law, which stipulates “the admission of an individual to a general or psychiatric hospital for psychiatric evaluation and, potentially, treatment.” The law can be triggered if the person would “create a likelihood of serious harm by reason of mental illness” and allows them to be kept for up to three business days against their will.
Let that sink in for a moment. According to Jackson, he was involuntarily committed by his employer.
Of course, I have no special insight as to whether Jackson’s account of what happened to him and why is accurate. As a historian, I refuse to believe absolutely everything that I read on Twitter. However, it seems beyond obvious that anybody concerned about the future of academic freedom in the United States needs to pay attention to how this dispute unfolds.