Dancing Cops and Free Speech

The famous “dancing cop” of Providence, Rhode Island, Tony Lepore, has been fired for organizing a “Blue Lives Matter” protest critical of the Black Lives Matter. Steven Paro, Providence Police Commissioner, declared: “Mr. Lepore was not authorized to speak on behalf of the Providence Police Dept. and his actions were, in my judgment, a disservice to the department…” On Fox & Friends Sunday this morning, Tucker Carlson called this “an ominous story” and blamed ”the mandatory conformity we’re all living under”: “you are not allowed to disagree with these people—and by these people, I mean the institutional left. Nobody’s allowed to disagree on global warming, on Black Lives Matter, any of these subjects, or you’re attacked or fired.”

Carlson is half-right: Lepore should not have been fired for his extramural speech. But he’s wrong (and delusional) to imagine that only conservatives are being fired in America for expressing their political views. In fact, you don’t see any police officers leading Black Lives Matter protests, in part because they’re afraid about their jobs. What we need is a defense of freedom of speech for all employees, especially government employees. You should not be fired for expressing controversial views on your own time. Although Lepore (who worked a part-timer after retiring) has been temporarily hired by East Providence, that doesn’t diminish the danger to free speech. (And free speech also applies to those who oppose free speech, including Lepore, who was protesting to have a Dunkin’ Donuts employee fired for writing #blacklivesmatter on a police officer’s cup.)

So what does all this have to do with academic freedom? Nothing, according to many people (including at the AAUP) who think that academic freedom is a distinct category unrelated to free speech. According to this view, academic freedom is the right of faculty to speak, derived from their scholarly expertise.

I disagree. I believe that academic freedom is a subset of freedom of speech, not a unique and distinctive right belonging solely to faculty. Academic freedom is a fundamental principle of colleges, but not limited to them: these same principles of academic freedom should be adopted by all institutions and all workplaces.

Interestingly, I think the police department does have the right to regulate Lepore’s dancing (but shouldn’t), because it happens on the job and is in theory a potential hazard or distraction. That’s where academic freedom is not just a difference of emphasis, but a difference of kind. A professor has the right to express themselves in a class (including by dancing) without being punished because academic freedom needs to be broad enough to include workplace speech such as teaching or research.

But when it comes to the bigger principle of protecting extramural utterances, academic freedom is a model for our entire society. We don’t weaken the idea of academic freedom by emphasizing its linkage to a broader freedom of speech. We strengthen academic freedom by recognizing it is part of a universal principle of free speech with special application to higher education.


One thought on “Dancing Cops and Free Speech

  1. I very much agree especially about your point that academic freedom should be viewed as a subset of freedom of speech. Unfortunately, for the vast majority without union protection, most workers lose that right at the employer’s door, (except for some public employes) because the Bill of Rights only applies to governmental action, not those of private (and increasingly state) employers. It should not be so, especially for extramural utterances, as you note.

    Taking this line would also enhance our efforts as college teachers to make alliances with other workers in defense of our own free speech rights (and the job security necessary to protect it) if we were seen as fighting for something all workers need, not just a special privilege. After all, do you want to be served by a physician or nurse who does not enjoy free speech protections and has to fear for their job if they speak to you frankly about the implications of your health situation and what you should do about it? Why should this not apply to everyone? Rich people already have free speech mostly because they can buy it. We need it, on and off the job, for workers too.

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