In Defense of Ken Storey

BY JOHN K. WILSON

We have seen many cases recently of professors being fired for their political opinions on twitter, but the University of Tampa’s firing of Ken Storey today is one of the more extreme, ridiculous, and utterly bizarre examples.

The University of Tampa announced:

On Sunday, Aug. 27, visiting assistant professor of sociology Kenneth Storey made comments on a private Twitter account that do not reflect UT’s community views or values. We condemn the comments and the sentiment behind them, and understand the pain this irresponsible act has caused.

Storey has been relieved of his duties at UT, and his classes will be covered by other sociology faculty.

As Floridians, we are well aware of the destruction and suffering associated with tropical weather. Our thoughts and prayers are with all impacted by Hurricane Harvey.

Storey had tweeted, “I dont believe in instant Karma but this kinda feels like it for Texas. Hopefully this will help them realize the GOP doesnt care about them”

This is not a threat. This is not a death wish. This is not a statement urging harm upon anyone. Referring to Karma and urging people to “realize the GOP doesn’t care about them” is not unethical in even the slightest way.

The fact that Storey was fired even though he apologized for the tweet and deleted the original tweet only makes his firing that much more inexplicable.

The University of Tampa is a private college, but its faculty handbook explicitly prohibits what it has done to Storey:

“Termination for cause of a continuous appointment, or the dismissal for cause of a teacher previous to the expiration of a term appointment, should, if possible, be considered by both a faculty committee and the governing board of the institution. In all cases where the facts are in dispute, the accused teacher should be informed before the hearing in writing of the charges and should have the opportunity to be heard in his or her own defense by all bodies that pass judgment upon the case.”

Of course, none of these procedures happened at the University of Tampa. And the reason why the administration refused to follow its own procedures is because it knew that its standards could not possibly justify firing Storey. The University of Tampa’s faculty handbook explicitly protects extramural utterances such as Storey’s and directly quotes the AAUP’s 1970 Interpretive Comments as its policy: “The controlling principle is that a faculty member’s expression of opinion as a citizen cannot constitute grounds for dismissal unless it clearly demonstrates the faculty member’s unfitness for his or her position. Extramural utterances rarely bear upon the faculty member’s fitness for the position. Moreover, a final decision should take into account the faculty member’s entire record as a teacher and scholar.”

It is impossible to imagine that expressing dumb ideas about karma on a personal twitter account clearly demonstrates unfitness, unless you make the circular argument that any opinion that gets you fired is proof that you are unfit because you lack the common sense to be a professor.

Administrators are free to denounce the views of faculty, even though doing is often misguided and can have a chilling effect.

But that’s nothing compared to the action of firing a professor without due process in response to a tweet.

This absurd overreaction to Storey’s tweet will have an enormous chilling effect. If one weird opinion on Twitter can get you dismissed without a hearing because it’s deemed to be too critical of a Republican state, just imagine what could happen if you criticize the current government in a classroom or a public forum.

One student supported Storey’s firing: “Yes, he has free speech, but there are some things you should just keep to yourself.” Another student declared, “As a professor and having a leadership position, it’s kind of his job to keep his opinions to himself.” No, it’s not. It’s disturbing how widespread is the notion that the job of a professor is to shut up.

Storey said, “What they see in those tweets is not who I am. How I worded it was wrong. I care about people. I love this country. I would never want to wish harm upon anyone.” Storey said he was referring to the “GOP denial of climate change science and push to decrease funds from agencies that can help in a time like this.”

Of course, that political viewpoint is precisely why Storey was fired. Right-wing websites such as Campus Reform and Professor Watchlist campaign for his dismissal and led the angry mob against academic freedom.

 

 


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9 thoughts on “In Defense of Ken Storey

  1. I am deeply troubled by Mr. Storey’s firing, as it clearly blurs the lines set by AAUP and by the very concept of Academic Freedom. But I am distracted from calling this column a compelling defense – and more than a little annoyed – by the virtue of the fact that you have shaded the story with your incomplete summary. The first tweet, by itself, is definitely not any sort of personal threat, though it does make light of people who were dying, literally as he was typing it, which is stupid. When, in his subsequent tweet, Storey responded to someone from Florida by saying “yep,” Floridian Trump voters deserve to be hit by this hurricane too, he was indeed explicitly wishing devastating loss of property and even death on a group of people. And the fact that he added the “also” comment made the first tweet seem more like a direct threat. Further, because his initial posted apology claimed that he had not wished ill will on anyone, despite having wished a hurricane on two groups of voters, his apology was seen as false. If his initial apology had been his most recent comment – the sort of “this is not who I am, this is not what I meant,” I suspect he would still have a job today.

  2. Thank you for this article, you are absolutely right. As an aside, I consider myself to the right of Pat Buchanan – who you are personally, who you sympathize with, or whether you agree is not relevant when evaluating free speech. I also do not believe this professor deserved to be fired. Apparently “freedom isn’t free” after all.

  3. He wasn’t fired for his political leanings or opinions, or even asserting that the GOP doesn’t care about their constituents. He was fired because he insinuated that all of this weather and pain and suffering was deserved because of who they voted for. That is unacceptable. You claim that he was fired for his political beliefs but in reality it was his belief that an entire state of people deserved the death and destruction because they voted for an anti-environment candidate, ignorant of the fact that Houston is actually one of the more liberal pockets in Texas.

    It’s indisputable that this was his message. “this sure feels like Karma” is pretty clear.

  4. If a conservative professor had tweeted a statement blaming the Charleston church shooting victims for what happened there because some of them voted for Obama, I seriously doubt that you would be defending such an egregiously offensive statement. The notion of academic freedom does not give professors license to say whatever they want to say without consequence. A professor is a professional who represents their organization. Consequently, a professional whose behavior embarrasses their organization can reasonably expect to be held responsible for said behavior. The “acadame” is not special. In any case, the man was hired to teach, not to make a complete ass of himself on Twitter. Also, consider that ex-professor Stoney, a man entrusted to educated students, actually thought that it would be a good idea to cheer for the deaths of people who happen to hold a different political opinion than himself. Does this not call into question his judgement? Additionally, when professors talk about academic freedom, it is interesting to note that what they almost invariably mean is freedom for professors to say what they want without fear. And yet we see the curtailment of free speech happening on many campuses across the country. In other words, when a “professor” makes an ass of himself, he can hide behind the shield of academic freedom, but if a student says something out of line, he has nowhere to hide.

    • Actually, I would strongly defend the academic freedom of someone who tweeted that the Charleston victims could have been saved if they had armed themselves, and blamed them for voting for Democrats who support gun control. Your proposed standards of “embarrasses their organization” and “judgment” are terrible ones. Suppose a professor tweets that Donald Trump is the most honest, brilliant, and moral president in history? Should that professor be fired for being an embarrassment with poor judgment? As for the definition of academic freedom, I believe in a much broader concept of academic freedom that includes students, but even those who do not enforce free speech for students, and it is very rare for a student to be punished for their tweets.

      • I do not deny that you have made some solid points. Specifically, I refer to the standards for what constitutes acceptable speech, and the very real issue of defining precisely what is meant by “academic freedom.” Certainly these issues are part of a larger ongoing argument and will not be resolved within the confines of an internet comment thread. However, I must take issue with the comparison that you have made between the statement made by Mr. Storey and the hypothetical example concerning Donald Trump. Mr. Storey’s comment made light of the death of human beings, and in my view at least, is reprehensible. The hypothetical example given concerns a simply bombastic statement supporting a politician. Tweeting support for a politician is qualitatively different than tweeting support for the suffering of human beings. At the very least, the tweet should’ve earned the man some form of censure. Granted, this is a complex issue and there are many different perspectives on it.

        • Well, then, if you want tweeting support for the suffering of human beings, look at the case of Glenn Reynolds, who tweeted “run them down,” urging drivers to run over Black Lives Matter protesters. In that case, while Reynolds’s tweet “is unquestionably stupid and morally repugnant,” Wilson said, “it generally should not be subject to investigation or punishment.”

          If Reynolds had made some kind of comment about how it would be ironic and deserved if protesters were run over, that would be close to Storey’s tweet. But Reynolds’ tweet was much, much worse, actually urging harm and possible death to another person. Yet nothing happened to Reynolds, and I argued that nothing should happen to him. Storey received plenty of censure for his tweet (in my view, probably more than he deserved). But he certainly should not have received a pink slip for it.

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