The name of the school was so familiar, I thought I had already written on this issue. But no: the past Ethics Alarms pieces were related—dimly–to the fate of student Kaylyn Willis, but this ethics outrage in involving her is new. In 2015 there was a mass shooting at the school, prompting the usual eruption of finger-pointing and dishonest claims by the anti-gun hysterics. I wrote about the latter here and elsewhere. Obviously, the tragedy is a raw wound, but that’s no excuse for what the school has done to Willis.
In the winter 2021 term, Willis enrolled in “Chronic I,” a class taught by Patrick Harris. Harris assigned students to use “critical imagining” to create stories from the perspective of a person suffering from a chronic disease. For a May, 2021 assignment, Harris asked his students to reflect on the support systems of chronically ill individuals and how a person with a chronic illness might respond to the sudden and unexpected loss of such support. Willis imagined a scenario in which a woman suffering from ALS shoots her husband, who is also her primary caretaker. Her fiction was based on a real case where a jury found a man “not guilty” of murdering his wife and sister-in-law because he suffered from ALS-related mental health issues. She posted her assignment on-line, as she had been directed to do.
Harris, it is fair to say, flipped out. He gave Willis an F, saying, “Do you honestly think that your post on a nursing school assignment was appropriate? Joking about killing your husband? I’m really questioning your critical thinking if you think this was an appropriate discussion post.” Harris indicated that he viewed her story as particularly offensive after the 2015 shooting on UCC’s campus.
School officials informed Willis that she was expelled from the program because her post violated its handbook prohibiting “[a]cts which are dishonest, disrespectful, or disruptive.” The Grievance Panel’s written decision stated that Willis’ post was “insensitive” and “failed to take into consideration the events of UCC’s past and the impact her post could have.” Her appeal was denied and she is now unable to seek admission to any other Oregon Consortium Nursing Education programs.
The Foundation for Individual Rights In Education is on the case. FIRE wrote a letter on Aug. 16 to UCC pointing out that Willis’ story constituted protected speech. It demanded that the school reverse the expulsion and clear Willis’ disciplinary record. UCC refused.
FIRE now vows, “We won’t close this chapter until Willis is reinstated and allowed to complete her program.” I wouldn’t bet against them.
1. The facts as presented by FIRE present a situation that shouldn’t even require analysis. The handbook’s standards are vague and unconstitutional on their face. “Dishonest, disrespectful, or disruptive” can be stretched to describe so many kinds of words or conduct that it constitutes no standard at all. “Insensitive” is Wokish-Esperanto for “don’t rock the progressive boat.” It is all laughably brazen censorship, except that Kaylyn Willis isn’t laughing.
2. The letter responding to FIRE, authored by an outside law firm, is an embarrassment. Willis was expelled in direct reaction to something she wrote to comply with a class assignment, yet the university’s purchased defense is that there were other reasons too. This is standard strategy to justify discriminatory and otherwise illegal actions.
3. Leading with a weak argument is the tip-off. The law firm’s first point is that Willis didn’t mention her inspiration for her story until she was expelled. It doesn’t matter what the inspiration was. It could have been a Bazooka Joe comic, or nothing at all. The student didn’t have to justify her story for it to be fully protected speech.
4. The letter cites “racially insensitive” behavior, but no such behavior is described. In addition, the argument that Willis’ offenses were “cumulative,” meaning that the offending story was the final straw, shows a lack of comprehension of what rights are. Protected speech can’t be the last straw, the first straw, or any straw at all. To hold otherwise is to chill the right.
5. As FIRE correctly points out, the Grievance Panel’s written decision using the student’s failure “to take into consideration the events of UCC’s past and the impact her post could have” suggests that whether gun-related speech is protected depends on whether an institution has had an incident of gun-related violence. That’s not how the freedom of speech works.
6. I don’t see any way Willis and FIRE don’t win this battle. My remaining concern is the culture in academia that appears to have lobotomized an entire generation of school leaders and administrators regarding the Bill of Rights. And they are similarly lobotomizing students.
7. This story was brought to my attention by the esteemed Curmie, who is planning on writing about it on his excellent blog. Maybe he’ll see nuances I don’t.
It wouldn’t be the first time.