When an Instructor Authors Odious Facebook Comments and Resigns, Is Academic Freedom Involved?

And what about one who moves a trashcan (for whatever reason)… should that instructor be fired?

This has not been a good week on the academic-freedom front. First, a Research Associate at Florida State University named Deborah O’Connor resigned after posting comments on Facebook like “Take your Northern fagoot [sic] elitism and shove it up your ass. ” That someone with a PhD in English (she wrote her dissertation on 19th century British literature) could make such a statement astonishes and disheartens me. Hell, that anybody could do so frightens me. But does that mean she should lose her job–be it of her own volition or not? And a week before finals (who is thinking about the students, here)?

A few days later, an adjunct instructor at Baruch College was arrested during a demonstration on the Brooklyn Bridge. Two police lieutenants were slightly injured in the brawl and New York City Major Bill de Blasio wants to bring his wrath down:

The English professor, 29-year-old Eric Linsker, joined a large anti-police brutality protest Saturday night on the Brooklyn Bridge. He was charged with assault in the second degree, rioting in the first degree, criminal possession of a weapon, resisting arrest and unlawful possession of marijuana.

“Absolutely, he should be removed from his position [if found guilty],” Mr. de Blasio told reporters at an unrelated press conference in Brooklyn.

Mr. de Blasio also said the professor should be suspended in the meantime.

“I think an attack on a police officer goes against the grain of our civilization and our society, I think it’s absolutely unacceptable,” he said.

During the protest, Mr. Linsker allegedly tried to throw a metal garbage can at officers on the Brooklyn Bridge, where thousands had gathered to protest grand jury votes not to indict white police officers in the deaths of black men in Ferguson, Mo. and Staten Island. The police reportedly attempted to arrest Mr. Linsker, but protesters intervened, pulling him away from police and punching and kicking the cops in the face and head. Protesters knocked the two officers down to the ground and punched and kicked them, drawing condemnation from Mr. de Blasio today.

Baruch responded a bit more rationally:

In a statement, Baruch College President Mitchel B. Wallerstein said: “Facts about the arrest of a person identified by the police as Eric Linsker, reportedly an adjunct faculty member in the English Department at Baruch College, are being collected and verified by the College. We have confirmed that Mr. Linsker is currently teaching one composition course at Baruch.

“Working with The City University of New York, Baruch will cooperate fully, as called upon, in any criminal investigation. While we believe firmly in the exercise of free speech, we deplore violence of any kind and will support the official investigation of this matter.”

From what I’ve heard, Linsker may not have been trying to use the garbage can as a weapon but simply to move it out of the way of protester passage. But I don’t know; police are going through videos to see if they can piece together a case. The question remains, does Linsker deserve the protection provided by the concept of academic freedom, one endorsed by Baruch’s own governance charter:

There shall be a General Faculty at the College whose membership endorses the principles of academic freedoms and responsibility, as defined by the AAUP statement of principles.

Legal questions aside, should Linsker’s job be threatened because of his actions on the bridge, actions that were sparked by political and civic concerns? Exactly how far does academic freedom extend, especially in a digital age where privacy has all but disappeared?

*****

Yesterday, in The Chronicle of Higher Education, David M. Perry addressed the O’Connor fiasco and, to my thinking, pegged the problem precisely:

So do we have to stand on principle in defense of O’Connor, if, indeed, she asks for it? I’d really rather not. I’m pleased to see a bigot drop out of the profession. I am, however, concerned that there are dangers to academic freedom in allowing this story to slide away. In a case like O’Connor’s, we need to require a faculty-involved due process that must demonstrate a link between uncivil speech and one’s professional obligations. Moreover, as FSU weighs its reaction to the O’Connor resignation, we must protect the ability of faculty to be uncivil in public, no matter how uncomfortable that makes us.

He compares this case to that of Steven Salaita, who we’ve written about so often on The Academe Blog:

According to her own letter [of resignation], she does not seem to have been granted the kind of due process usually called for by advocates of academic freedom. Indeed, one of the most consistent criticisms of the University of Illinois was that even if one believed that Salaita’s tweets constituted grounds for rescinding his job offer, he should have been allowed to respond to accusations as part of that process. I agree with that criticism. I wonder whether O’Connor was offered a process in the event she chose not to resign (FSU will not comment on personnel issues).

Just as some defenders of academic freedom have brushed off Salaita, saying he had not been officially hired yet when his contract was prematurely terminated, I have heard others say that the O’Connor case does not meet the standard because she resigned “voluntarily.”

With cameras everywhere and everything we write on social media captured for perpetuity, questions of academic freedom are only going to get stickier and more convoluted, and are going to challenge our own willingness to fight for it (who among us, after all, really wants to defend O’Connor?).

10 thoughts on “When an Instructor Authors Odious Facebook Comments and Resigns, Is Academic Freedom Involved?

  1. “…who among us, after all, really wants to defend O’Connor?”

    It’s not about defending O’Connor. It’s about defending a principle (free speech) that is in grave danger of becoming extinct.

  2. It’s more, even, that defending freedom of speech. Academic freedom is something else, though it is related. But, though you are right that it’s not about defending O’Connor, defending her rights makes it look, to many people, like one is defending her.

    • On the Guth case, AAUP’s 2013 report on Academic Freedom and Electronic Communications stated:

      “At the University of Kansas, also in September 2013, a journalism professor, responding to a shooting incident at the Washington Navy Yard in Washington, DC, tweeted a comment about gun control that many gun advocates found offensive. He was barraged with hate messages and death threats, and several legislators called for his dismissal. Although the university publicly reaffirmed its commitment to his freedom of speech, he was suspended to “avoid disruption.” However, a suspension designed to protect a faculty member from potentially violent responses to a controversial statement can quite easily become a punishment for the content of the statement, which in this instance was clearly protected by both the First Amendment and principles of academic freedom.”

      Guth, however, chose not to challenge the suspension, which was with pay. Had he done so and requested assistance from the AAUP, we certainly would have done whatever we could. And both the national AAUP and its Kansas State Conference vigorously opposed the ill-considered social media policy subsequently imposed by the Kansas Board of Regents, which certainly violates fundamental principles of academic freedom.

  3. I would defend O’Connor’s academic freedom, but everyone is free to urge bigots such as O’Connor not to teach. But I would reject the comparison between O’Connor and Salaita, precisely because O’Connor voluntarily resigned. After all, no one has accused Virginia Tech of violating Salaita’s academic freedom by refusing to re-hire him, because he voluntarily resigned (however, I think Virginia Tech has a moral obligation to do so).

    Linkser’s academic freedom should definitely be protected. As far as I can tell, his crime was throwing a garbage can in the general direction of police, causing no harm with no evidence of harm. His crime is aggravated littering. The fact that police were attacked by others in their attempt to arrest him has no relevance to his case. It seems like an attempt to impose a punishment on a professor for political crimes. And when a crime has no relevance to one’s academic duties, it should not factor into academic decision-making.

    • I suggested in my Chronicle piece that O’Connor’s resignation was not really voluntary. She was a lecturer, not a tenured prof, and “pressured.” We don’t have the specifics because she’s not answering email and FSU won’t comment, but that’s how I read the reports, her quotes in the local press, and the documents online.

      • I don’t see how any resignation in the final weeks of the semester could be considered “voluntary.” I suspect that there is more involved and believe that any advocate of academic freedom should be uneasy with the situation.

      • No, the resignation was clearly voluntary, as her emails state. (And, yes, people can voluntarily resign in the final weeks of a semester, but O’Connor correctly did it effective at the end of this semester, so nothing odd about that.) The question is whether illegitimate pressure was put on her to resign. This is trickier. O’Connor writes that she felt like she didn’t get a “fair hearing,” but I think she is using that term in an informal sense, not that she had a formal hearing about her case yet. We don’t have any real evidence of misconduct by the administration, and we can’t simply assume there was any. I worry that FSU might have sought to fire O’Connor over her comments, which would be a danger to academic freedom, but we’ll never know the outcome of that because she resigned. And that makes it fundamentally different from the Salaita case.

        • We need to be careful in any case even touching on questions of academic freedom. There are those who say that Salaita “clearly” wasn’t yet hired, so his case is not one of academic freedom. O’Connor’s case may be different, but there is certainly a connection between her Facebook comments and her decision to resign. Whether or not her resignation was “clearly” voluntary, we would be remiss to ignore it completely.

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