Are Universities Ethically Obligated To Tolerate Professors Who Embarrass Them By Saying Idiotic And Offensive Things?

Apparently the answer to the above is “Yes.”



If the university is a state school, then for it to fire a professor who makes ridiculous, foolish or hateful statements that make people wonder why they should ever entrust the minds of their tender charges into an institution that would knowingly hire cretins and jackasses to pollute student RNA, then this is probably a First Amendment violation, since it amounts to the government punishing speech and chilling free expression. If, on the other hand, the university involved is not a state school, then to send a professor packing because he or she has rammed his or her foot down his or her throat up to the knee is a violation of the crucial principle of academic freedom, which is, in brief, that to encourage the free discussion of ideas on a college campus, education being the purpose of the institution, literally no idea, point of view or position should be blocked or chilled by substantive negative action.

Three cases of recent vintage illustrate the university’s plight:

1. Prof David Guth, in a tweet, calls for the sons and daughters of NRA members to be the next victims of a firearm-assisted massacre.  His tweet and sentiment was widely condemned, and he defended it. His employer, the University of Kansas, has suspended him, with pay. Uh-uh. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (The Fire), usually the defenders of students beset with campus political correctness and restrictive speech codes, has come to Guth’s defense, saying,

“While KU is free to speak out against Guth’s comments, it may not, consistent with its moral and legal obligations under the First Amendment, punish him for expressing his views.”

2.  University of Maryland professor William Dorland topped Guth’s tweet for stupidity, if not hatefulness, by writing this in an e-mail to the student body:

“This year, we learned that it is legal to hunt down and kill American children in Florida.”

Yes, professor, I’m sure that was what the verdict in the Zimmerman case was all about, you irresponsible jerk. Nonetheless, the UMD’s official position was FIRE repellant:

“The University of Maryland affirms every individual’s 1st Amendment Rights, including freedom of speech.  The sentiments issued by Professor Dorland reflect his personal point of view, not those of the university.”

At Maryland, of course, Dorland’s position, idiotic, irrational and counter-factual as it is, may well constitute the majority position.  Might the campus see things differently had he, say, approved of the Zimmerman verdict, as anyone credentialed to teach at a major U.S. campus should, and the African-American groups were calling for his removal for “insensitive” comments?

I wonder.

3. Prof. Steven Landsburg, an economist at the University of Rochester, published a blog post raising  a series of hypothetical public-policy “dilemmas,” including this: “Should rape be illegal if the victim is unconscious, the professor wrote, and if no physical harm results?” Now students and alumni are urging the university to censure the professor based on his politically incorrect musings, while others beyond the campus have called for him to be fired.

Of the three provocative profs, I’d say Landsburg is obviously on the safest ground: his speculation is classic musing of the sort professors and scholars have engaged in since the days of Socrates, and the fact that he posed a question that most would never dare to consider is to his credit, not his detriment. In other words, he said nothing that reasonably calls into question his qualifications as a teacher, his reasoning ability, his temperment or intelligence quotient, unless to challenge political correctness and enforced ideological orthodoxy in today’s predominant campus culture is to be regarded as per se evidence of derangement.

Guth is also safe, or should be: FIRE is correct. He has both the First Amendment and academic freedom on his side. He is entitled to say stupid, vicious, hateful things and not suffer any adverse job action.

As for Professor Dorland, whom I would deem the best candidate for re-orientation in a non-teaching capacity, perhaps in the waste disposal field, he’s not in any danger at all, because his idiocy was politically correct idiocy Barack Obama’s America.

In case I haven’t been clear, I agree that professors should be immune from punishment for statements they make that upset people, legitimately or not, and that universities are acting unethically when they cave to public or campus pressure to sanction them. What, then, are the ethical obligations involved?

1. For the professors: They are ethically obligated not to make objectively offensive, inflammatory, emotional and hateful statements in public that embarrass the institutions that employ them.

2. For the universities: To make a good faith effort not to hire irresponsible, egotistical, hateful and intemperate jerks with poor impulse control. If they do, the universities involved deserve every bit of public humiliation that comes their way as a result.


Facts: Campus Reform, Wall Street Journal, Chronicle of Higher Education

Graphic: Canadian Mysteries

9 thoughts on “Are Universities Ethically Obligated To Tolerate Professors Who Embarrass Them By Saying Idiotic And Offensive Things?

  1. People have a short fuse for political incorrectness, and it can be annoying.

    Last year the Botanical Garden where I volunteer fired its CEO (President) of because she suggested that the group start recruiting workers and visitors that represent the community, and not just a bunch of “Middle Class White People.” I think the woman was white, and I don’t think she intended on sparking a racial uproar.

    Her firing sparked actual protests at the Botanical Garden, which is an unbelievable sight for a place known for its still lifes. The (all white) Board of Directors held fast, stating that inappropriate racial language was unacceptable.

    Part of me thought this over reaction was completely unethical, and was probably being used an excuse to replace its leadership. Another part of me agree with the action, since this type of language would not be tolerated if she said Old or Black or Christian or Jewish.

  2. They were probably sick of her anyway. A Barbara Streisand type running the Botanical Garden wouldn’t be my first choice. Still firing her seems a little harsh. Maybe a reprimand would have been a wiser choice.

    • I don’t think leaders get off with just reprimands. By the time one reaches leadership levels that high, one is expected to have one’s act together and not make statements that create or add to the prevailing climate of the entity they lead if those statements are in gross opposition to the majority opinion (and the majority opinion has a say so).

  3. Might the campus see things differently had he, say, approved of the Zimmerman verdict, as anyone credentialed to teach at a major U.S. campus should, and the African-American groups were calling for his removal for “insensitive” comments?

    There are many law professors who have publicly said the jury made the correct call in the Zimmerman trial (for example, Ann Althouse, David Friedman, David Bernstein, and Dan Markel, but there are many more.) . Can you name even one who has faced African American groups calling for their removal?

    Since many professors have in fact approved of the Zimmerman verdict without African-American groups calling for their dismissal, I don’t think the speculation you’re indulging in here is justified by reality.

    Regarding the post as a whole, I agree with you. I can think of things professors could say which would justify their firing – if they say something which seriously calls into question their ability to competently perform their job, basically – but none of these examples rise to that level.

    I had a very elderly professor who wasted my time in an econ class with political rants. He wasn’t fired, but I was relieved when he retired.

    • Point taken. I’m not so sure we have a true test, though: the opinions you cite were made formally and in articles and interviews. If, say, a Howard Law prof sent out a tweet saying, “Hooray for the Zimmerman jury! Finally, the oppressed George is a free man!” I can easily see campus protests following…it only takes a few. My point wasn’t that such protests are likely, but that a school like UMD would be much more receptive to objections coming from more favored quarters. And it would.

  4. Actually, you aren’t on safe grounds at a private school. Many schools have language that lets them fire even a tenured professor for publicly embarrassing the university. A faculty member at my school once cleverly manipulated this policy to get the administration to let him out of his contract so he could accept another job offer.

  5. Generally speaking, the concept of academic freedom is restricted to tenured faculty: hence the seriousness of recent assaults on the notion of tenure.

    Full disclosure: I’m a bigger fan of tenure since receiving it than I was before. 🙂

  6. The answer is simple. There is no longer “class” involved in the thinking processes of academia….meaning professors. I could rant a lot on “twitter” or whatever but I was taught “class”. So I “rant” at home with tequila, the tv, the dogs, the cows, the horses….. None of these professed professors have class or ethics.

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