Professor Volokh’s Ethics Dissent On The Vicious, Pazuzu-Blaming Professor’s Firing

‘Yes, I know he’s an idiot, but we should support idiots as highly paid teachers of our children, for the protection of the non-idiots…

Eugene Volokh is one of the best and most objective legal minds in the country. If he finds himself on the Supreme Court when Kennedy retires or Ginsberg shuffles off this mortal coil, we will not have suffered through the ugliness of the Trump years in vain. When he opines, I listen, as we all should, and he has now opined regarding the now fired idiot that I wrote about this morning, ex-University of Tampa visiting sociology professor Ken Storey.

Storey used Twitter, in the middle of the still-unfolding human disaster in Houston and soon New Orleans, to announce that flooding victims who were Trump supporters or Republicans deserved to die. He did this twice, so his later claim that his words did not intentionally convey what his words were obviously intended to convey was a desperate and obvious lie.

I wrote:

The university or college that fires an employee like Storey is protecting its reputation as a responsible institution, by stating in clear terms that people with terrible judgment and cruel and unethical instincts who are motivated by hate and intolerance are not qualified to teach….because they aren’t. That professors increasingly have no ethics alarms beeping when the prepare to publish sentiments like Storey’s (or worse) shows how thoroughly the leftist echo chambers of most campus faculties turn academics into Pat Robertson, which is to say, rigid, mean, and dumb. Once upon a time, liberals giggled themselves silly over the evangelical huckster’s periodic pronouncement about how a disaster was God’s way of punishing the U.S. for not abusing gays sufficiently, or similar bile, Now they do the same thing, and expect their colleagues and students to applaud.

Today, in the Washington Post, Professor Volokh advocates a different position:

Storey’s comments were nasty and mean-spirited; and I should note that the University of Tampa is a private university, in a state that doesn’t limit private employers’ ability to fire employees for their speech. The university’s actions thus seem legal (assuming they didn’t breach any contract). And Storey’s comments also weren’t academic or likely to be part of a serious political debate.

But the university’s action strikes me as further undermining the freedom of expression and debate at American universities, including the freedom to say things that are much more thoughtful. If you were an untenured faculty member at the University of Tampa, would you feel free to express your views on controversial subjects, when you saw how the university reacted to this tweet? Even if your views were very different politically, what do you think the University would do if people started pressuring for your dismissal, pointing to the Storey incident as precedent?

I’ve talked before about “censorship envy,” one mechanism through which these sorts of speech restrictions can grow: “If my neighbor — and especially my political adversary — gets to ban speech he reviles,” the thinking goes, “why shouldn’t I get to do the same?”

If a university has a strong policy of protecting speech, including offensive speech, administrators can point to that policy as a means of resisting calls for firing a controversial faculty member, and they can appeal to people’s desire to see speakers on their own side protected, and use that desire to help protect speakers on all sides. But once the university starts firing some people for speech “that do[es] not reflect [the university’s] community views or values,” that makes it much harder to resist calls for more suppression. Indeed, at that point tolerating speech starts implicitly conveying the message that the speech does reflect the university’s community views or values — and to avoid that implication, the university would have to fire any speaker who offended some sufficiently influential constituency.

I am very confident that in this rare case, Prof. Volokh is dead wrong. I also am confident that I know why. All the commenting professors I have read, from various positionss on the ideological scale, have consistently taken the side of less prudent, less intelligent, less rational professors who have posted outrageous things on social media, or even spouted unquestioned hate and bigotry on television or radio. Volokh’s specialty is Constitutional law, but mine is ethics, and a disqualifying conflict of interest is coming through to me loud and clear. Professors don’t want any kind of “controversial speech” (this is what Volokh inaccurately terms what Storey tweeted) being used by institutions to sever ties with an academic. Of course they don’t. Naturally they want absolute immunity from accountability for their fellow ivory tower professionals, because it also means that they have such immunity. Professors Volokh (a libertarian), and Reynolds (strongly conservative), and Turley (moderate liberal) all frequently court controversy in their own publications. It is in their interests to rally to the side of the most moronic, vicious and idiotic professor, no matter what he or she says. After all, if their moronic statements are safe, so are the statements of the less-moronic and the brilliant.

Professor Volokh’s argument is a straw man. I agree that no professor should be fired for controversial comments, or offensive comments, when the controversy or offense is reasonably based on a substantive opinion or theory that meets minimal standards of intelligence and professionalism consistent with the duties of a teacher and faculty member. “I think the United States should be run by a military dictatorship” is controversial. “I think that the Republican Party has become a nascent fascist party, and anyone who supports it is going to be supporting genocide within five years” is offensive. “Anyone who is Republican or a Trump supporter deserves to die in this storm” is just stupid. It is something a 10-year-old might say. Universities cannot find themselves charging 5 figure tuition fees while employing professors who publicly announce to the world, “I am not only hateful and bigoted, I’m also a cretin.”

A professor who behaves this way cannot be trusted. A professor who says things like this in public cannot be responsibly relied upon to teach anything but an antifa “How to be a thug” seminar, if that. No student who is conservatively inclined can or should expect fair treatment from such a teacher, and no teacher who cannot be completely trusted by a college to be fair and unbiased in class should be allowed to teach one.

A university or college has a right to self-preservation, and a duty to protect its reputation in order that alumni, graduates, and students present and future do not see their credentials and degrees reduced to the status of junk bonds. [See: University of Missouri]

Storey’s tweets were not on any “side” except the side of unthinking hatred. They weren’t articulating a political position; they were illustrating poor character and an ethics vacuum by their author. The college should have similarly fired Storey if he was wishing death on Democrats, Hillary voters, African Americans, or police officers. If he had announced that he believed that the Earth was made of hummus and humans evolved from squirrels, then doubled down on his claims when challenged, would Volokh still argue that the college was obligated to allow him to make it look like a clown school?

Well, probably he would. And that’s ridiculous.

Ex-professor Storey was is a destructive employee. His tweets harmed the institution, and would continue to until the school stated, “We don’t have teachers this cruel and stupid on our faculty.”

10 thoughts on “Professor Volokh’s Ethics Dissent On The Vicious, Pazuzu-Blaming Professor’s Firing

  1. Jack, I’m wondering how you rationalize the consistency of two points you make (they seem to imply Storey’s statements both were and were not political/partisan):
    (1) “No student who is conservatively inclined can or should expect fair treatment from such a teacher.”
    (2) “Storey’s tweets were not on any ‘side’ except the side of unthinking hatred. They weren’t articulating a political position.”

    • Huh? “i want all conservatives dead’ is not a political position. It is bigotry that happens to choose its target based on politics. “Wishing adversaries dead” is not a partisan attitude. I see no inconsistency. (I’d call your argument trolling. Do better.)

      • I’m new here. Maybe you could point me to the set of definitions you’re using? I’d have thought any utterance employing words like conservative, liberal, dem, rep, left, right would qualify for political and/or partisan — perhaps IN ADDITION to being insane etc.

        • Why would you think that? I got my major in government, political philosophy and US political history. Those terms have pretty well defined, if sometimes shifting definitions. Look them up yourself. Don’t play word games here. I consider that trolling, and your first comments have you on the Troll Watch List.

          If I say that a position or conduct is insane, it means “not defensible on rational grounds.” If I really believe the conduct raises questions about a metal state, I will usually say “clinically insane. Are you really going to argue that someone saying that a political view warrants death by storm is a rational position, don’t waste my time.

          • No, certainly I’m not trolling, nor “arguing death by storm” as you characterize, Rather, I’m linking into the nearby comment-chain about context vs. snippets-out-of-context (which you appear to think is a reasonable line, since you’re contributing to it).

            The prof’s snippet per se (out-of-context) was certainly all-kinds-of-wrong. But he never said “I want all conservatives” (as you paraphrase), and his further elucidation (reported elsewhere, I don’t see it here, I just may be missing it) claiming snide-comment-about-climate-change-going-wrong-in-140-chars seems to be an a priori reasonable (POLITICAL/PARTISAN) disclaimer, esp. in view of his original explicit invocation of the political/partisan keyword “GOP.”

            Even you linked the prof with “conservatively inclined students,” a political/partisan concept hence my (innocent) request about consistency of terminology (“his tweets weren’t articulating a political position,” you wrote, inconsistent with your “conservative student” comment). That all, not some kind of subversive agenda.

  2. Very simply, the Constitution of the United States guarantees all of us the right to say virtually anything we want to say. It does NOT guarantee us the right to be free from the consequences of those utterances. Thus, you are perfectly free to shout “Fire” in a crowded theater, but you’d best be willing to face whatever civil or criminal consequences result. Congress is prohibited from making any law abridging the freedom of speech: it is NOT prohibited from making you responsible for the results of your speech. Makes no difference whether that speech is political or not, if there are consequences to that speech, YOU are responsible for them.

    • “Thus, you are perfectly free to shout “Fire” in a crowded theater, but you’d best be willing to face whatever civil or criminal consequences result”

      If there is a law against something, you aren’t perfectly free to do it in any legal sense.

      I get what you are saying though, it’s just as long as criminal consequences may follow conduct, one is technically not free to do it. It’d be like saying, you are free to rob anyone you please, just be prepared to face criminal consequences. That’s a kind of natural freedom, but not a legal freedom.

      Within the realm of market interactions and community interactions however, sure there are consequences for how you choose to use your freedom of speech. But even within that realm, ethics will show us, somewhere on the sliding scale of “consequences”, there becomes a reaction bearing a large enough scope in relation to the individual or small enough group of individuals, that even the community consequences can become a type of speech suppression, and, in terms of the spirit of the Freedom of Speech, it becomes unethical.

  3. I agree that thoughtful and nuanced statements on controversial topics can be acceptable, even if it get some people angry. But, as Jack pointed out, this guy was not arguing anything, besides his hate and contempt. If the guy railed minorities, Dems, etc, that would have been labeled as “hate speech” and even if the institution wanted to stand up for him, there would be an intense influence campaign and maybe even a boycott against them.
    I can attest to the hostility in colleges towards wrong think. A buddy, who is a grad student, tells me how he keeps his conservative views below the radar, for fear of being singled out and repressed. He wants to make a name for himself in academics, and that is how it must be played. I find that quite a sad state of affairs.

  4. I found Professor V.’s commentary quite persuasive, but I suppose we do well to remember a couple of things: The government shall make no laws, etc…. but private citizens (including employers) have the right to express what they wish – and the right to expel those who don’t conform to their established norms? Not familiar with the legal wranglings of such, but it strikes me that a smoke shop should be able to fire someone who pushes non-smoking rhetoric upon its customers, no?

    If so, a private university has the the right to determine how well it’s employees “push” its product (education). I would think even a state university should be able to establish a standard of conduct that befits the mission of its existence.

    To Mr. Marshall’s point, there was nothing educationally relevant to Storey’s commentary, and any dope with half a brain would know that the timing of the comment was horrible. The university had every reason to believe that if Mr. Storey can’t get THAT right, well….

    That said, it was on his private twitter account? Not sure how this differs from others being punished for “offsite” commentary where Jack defends their right to do so – where I do agree, though, is that those in positions of influence have a duty to model proper conduct (and maybe that’s the practical difference).

    Second item of note, while this university may have fired Storey for his il-advised commentary, the practical reality is that there are now probably a hundred more outfits ready to hire him for having said what he did. What prevents it from being flipped? “Gee, my fellow professor said something stupid and got fired from this job, but he got three more offers at twice the salary the day after he said it… hmmm.”

    As somebody mentioned, have the courage to take the ramifications of (and “own”) your actions – “free speech” goes both ways.

  5. Storey’s behavior was bad and he probably got what he deserved. But Storey is just a symptom of a bigger problem.

    Storey is just one example of university faculty members pushing the envelope of freedom of thought and freedom of speech well beyond their area’s of expertise, responsibility and knowledge, well into the realm of political advocacy and propaganda Maybe not always, but usually it is leftist ideology being foisted on everybody else and protected under the guise of academic tenure. (We almost never hear about “activist right-wing” faculty members at American universities.)

    It has been a while since I was a university student but I have two degrees at two separate universities, one in the U.S. and one Canadian, and during the eras of the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, and the French Separatist movement in Canada. These were times of serious and highly emotional political movements. And yet, I don’t recall the blatant political activism of university personnel subjecting students to constant one side or another ideology, propaganda, or out-right brain washing. Maybe I was just distracted with the idea of getting an education and going about my business, but it seems to me that in those olden times, universities and university personnel were not quite so blatantly activist as they are today.

    Today, it seems to me that not only is political activism of university personnel tolerated, but it is actively sanctioned and encouraged, and most of it seems to pursue leftist political positions some of those positions quite extreme in my view. While I have no problem with the presentation of leftist political thought to students… in fact I agree with some of those positions… I do have a problem that there seems to be growing intolerance of anything but leftist political thought.

    This is becoming a problem with American academia. While I certainly support higher education, I am becoming increasingly distrustful of those who abuse their positions for partisan political ends.

    Presently President Trump “enjoys” some of the lowest approval numbers of any president in history. But still, his approval numbers, at least in some polls, are higher than those of Congress and the mainstream media. I wonder where academia would stack up on in the approval polls? I am thinking that outside of those ivy covered walls… maybe not so well.

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