There’s a to-do at Warren Community College in New Jersey over an email sent to a student by adjunct instructor (now ex-adjunct instructor) John Daly to a student earlier this month.
Rebecca Beach, a Warren student and the head of the campus chapter of Young America’s Foundation, sent out an email to the faculty about an event she was helping organize at which a veteran of the war in Iraq was to speak, favorably, about the war. In response, Daly fired off a long rant that referred to YAF literature as “fascist propaganda,” denounced the assertion on one of their posters that “Communism killed 100,000,000” (which, Daly asserted, “is not only untrue, but ignores the fact that CAPITALISM has killed many more”) and concluded thusly:
I will continue to expose your right-wing, anti-people politics until groups like your won’t dare show their face on a college campus. Real freedom will come when soldiers in Iraq turn their guns on their superiors and fight for just causes and for people’s needs–such freedom fighters can be counted throughout American history and they certainly will be counted again.
After the YAF publicized the email, a controversy eruped. Warren Community College president William Austin said that he found Daly’s statements “personally repugnant” but would defend his First Amendment rights to express his views. Daly noted that Beach was not his student, and that he had sent the email from his personal account to her personal account (rather than a college one). Nonetheless, the Board of Trustees scheduled an emergency meeting to discuss Daly’s fate, and he ended up resigning before he could be fired.
I agree with Eugene Volokh that the retaliation is troubling:
Daly sounds like a jerk, but it seems to me that his speech is protected by principles of academic freedom, and quite possibly by the First Amendment. … He’s entitled to express his views (however reprehensible) about the propriety of soldiers killing their superiors, and to condemn (even if intemperately) people who put on programs that he thinks express immoral views. Trying to intimidate students with threats of low grades would of course be improper, but simply threatening to urge others to stay away from the talk is permissible — again, in my view quite wrong for a talk such as this one, but permissible.
At the same time, it’s interesting to note that Daly’s email to Beach does not simply criticize or intemperately condemn her views; he promises to do everything he can to silence groups such as hers and make sure that their views are not heard on the campus. So there’s a bit of hypocrisy in his claiming the protection of free speech for his own views.
Meanwhile, there is a lively discussion of the Daly contretemps in the comments at Inside Higher Ed. Daly’s opponents argue that his comment about U.S. soldiers turning their guns on their superiors amounts to “treason” (hardly, since he was not directing any propaganda at actual soldiers) while his supporters lament that he was driven from his job for “private speech” and for exposing students to views “outside the mainstream.”
As I said, I do think this case has disturbing implications for academic freedom, and it raises troubling questions about the rights (or lack thereof) of adjunct faculty.
As a commenter at Inside Higher Ed noted, suppose Daly — or some far-right intellectual twin of his — had written, “Abortion will end when someone turns their guns on the abortionists.” Suppose, too, that he had written this to a student who had emailed him about a pro-choice event. Suppose he had also written, “I will continue to expose your pro-death, godless views until groups like yours won’t dare show their face on a college campus.” And suppose he had objected to an overly negative portrayal of Nazism (or even South African apartheid) rather than Communism.
Other than Eugene Volokh, how many of the people who are now upset at the violation of Daly’s First Amendment rights would still be defending fredom of speech for his right-wing counterpart?
To quote the title of Nat Hentoff’s always-relevant 1992 book: “Free Speech for Me — But Not for Thee.”
Update: A friend alerts me to an interesting case with definite similarities to this one three years ago at Saint Xavier University.
Update: Eugene Volokh emails me to make a point somewhat similar to one made by one of the commenters:
Is “silence” quite the right term? Silencing by public denunciation strikes me as not inconsistent with defending free speech against government retaliation. If, for instance, I publicly berate people who are racists — or for that matter, those who wrongly call people “racist” — in order to deter such expression, I think I’m acting quite properly.
This having been said, I agree that professors should generally encourage students to put on more events, rather than fewer, even when they disagree with the events’ theme. But if the event seems really repugnant, is it really wrong for the professor to urge a boycott, or to say that he’ll try to make the organizers ashamed to do such
As to the “turns their guns” point, I agree that some such statements might be seen as unprotected threats — but here it seems important that the statement contemplated behavior by non-students against non-students, far away from campus and likely in another country. The better analogy would be “The Israeli-Palestinian conflict will end when the Israelis turn their guns on Palestinians.” That statement might be condemned, but I don’t think it could be punished as an unprotected threat; no listener would reasonably perceive that the speaker is threatening the listener’s life, nor could it be inferred that the speaker is intending to threaten the listener’s life.
Interesting point. To some extent, most of us probably do engage in “viewpoint discrimination” — at least, between “beyond the pale” viewpoints and socially acceptable viewpoints. As the commenter in this thread has noted, no one would find Daly’s language objectionable if it were directed at the Ku Klux Klan. But then again, how many people would be seriously upset if a university denied funding and office space to a campus chapter of the KKK? Of course, in this case, Daly was expressing an intent to make the expression of an “acceptable” viewpoint unacceptable on the campus.
An exhortation to kill “abortionists” seems to me to fall into the same category as Eugene’s Israeli-Palestinian example, since in neither case is there a potential call to violence directed at students.