FIRE on the Daly case

FIRE, the Foundation of Individual Rights in Education, an admirable organization (co-founded by two admirable people, University of Pennsylvania history professor Alan Charles Kors and civil liberties attorney Harvey Silverglate) that exhibits true non-partisanship in defending free expression in the academy, looks at the John Daly brouhaha at Warren Community College.

A November 22 post on the FIRE blog, The Torch, sided unequivocally with Daly, concluding that his email to conservative student Rebecca Beach was clearly protected speech. Another post, on November 29, returns to the issue, examining some of the questions that came up in my own post about the case and in the comments.

FIRE program manager Robert Shibley writes:

FIRE has received e-mails from individuals who point out that Professor Daly seems hostile to the free exchange of ideas on campus. … As one e-mail correspondent wrote, “Daly is not the victim here. He is clearly an enemy of free speech, and his message indicates that he’s willing to abuse ‘academic freedom’ to advance his own political agenda (he’s an English professor—what business does he have telling his students to boycott a political event?)…. Set aside the offensiveness of his statement about soldiers killing their superiors. He is a state employee threatening to suppress free speech on a college campus. Isn’t this what FIRE is fighting against?”

… [F]rom what I have read, Daly was not threatening to use the apparatus of state power to silence an opposing viewpoint. He was merely expressing his own political convictions in a strong way, and did not appear to be making any physical threats against the student. In fact, what his e-mail (scroll to the bottom to read) actually “threatens” is that he will argue and agitate so successfully for his own political convictions that those who oppose him will be marginalized and embarrassed because so few will agree with them. … All in all, we have seen nothing to indicate that this was not just another vehement political disagreement between politically minded adults in our society. Is it ideal for professors to address students this way? Probably not. But respect for the principle of free speech requires one to tolerate a lot of communication that is far from ideal.

Granted, Daly’s comments don’t really appear to be those of a friend of free inquiry. Yet a principled free speech advocate must be prepared to protect the speech of even those who believe that speech should be silenced and censorship widespread.

While I find Daly’s email utterly reprehensible (not to mention idiotic), I think Shibley is right, and Warren College was wrong. The right answer to Daly’s speech was more speech: expose his lunatic politics until he’s — well, marginalized and embarrassed. Instead, conservatives in this case have chosen to go the censorship route. Too bad, for them and for academic freedom.

Footnote: Here’s an interesting question. Suppose, instead of asking for official sanctions against Daly, Rebecca Beach and her fellow conservatives had begun to agitate for students to boycott Daly’s classes.

If they succeeded to the extent that not enough people would enroll in his classes to justify continuing them, the college would presumably have a right to dismiss him (as an untenured adjunct) because his employment was no longer feasible.

Thus, a student boycott would ultimately have the same effect — albeit a delayed one — of penalizing Daly’s speech as dismissal to punish him directly for his opinions and his manner of expressing them.

What are the implications of this for academic freedom and freedom of speech?


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8 responses to “FIRE on the Daly case

  1. Mark B.

    think that a YAF-led class boycott would have been an interesting experiment; however, I don’t think Daly would have forced him out, since 1) more students on that campus probably sympathize with Daly than with YAF, and 2) Daly and followers would have promptly raised a stink about “bullying and intimidation” tactics, scaring the university off from firing him. OTOH, it might have served as a warning shot across the bows of Daly and the other True Believers and made them more circumspect about their actions.

    Daly should have saved the rhetoric for the campus soapboxes, not private e-mails, and certainly not in a direct teacher-to-student communique – regardless of the “unofficial” nature of the missive, it was stupid and unprofessional of Daly to send it. He left himself vulnerable to the YAF countercharge, and suffered the consequences.

  2. thecobrasnose

    While I can appreciate the free speech argument, couldn’t the university make the case that Daly’s intemperate e-mail is evidence of an unprofessional person who might not be trusted to provide a thoughtful learning environment to his students? And if so, wouldn’t they be within their rights to terminate him?

  3. Cathy Young

    Mark, interesting points! Since we’re talking about a community college, I’m not sure Daly’s views would find all that much sympathy there. Though on the other hand, if a student needs to take Expository Writing 101 for her credits and Daly is the only one whose section of the course has any openings, I doubt that a lot of students would stick to principle. Still — a boycott could have made a noticeable dent in his enrollment. And really, since Daly was bragging about organizing boycotts of YAF events and threatening to basically shame them off the campus, it would have been the height of hypocrisy for his supporters to complain about a boycott!

    I do concur with you in that I don’t feel that much sympathy for Daly, though I do have some free speech concerns about his case.


    While I can appreciate the free speech argument, couldn’t the university make the case that Daly’s intemperate e-mail is evidence of an unprofessional person who might not be trusted to provide a thoughtful learning environment to his students? And if so, wouldn’t they be within their rights to terminate him?

    I think that for that, there have to be actual evidence that he was not providing an appropriate learning environment for his students. A person may be an ass in his or her private communications, and still behave professionally on the job.

  4. thecobrasnose

    I don’t know that Daly’s e-mail would be considered entirely private. After all, it wasn’t between Daly and a friend or family member, but with a student activist who contacted him on behalf of an official campus activity. No, it isn’t the same as a classroom discussion, but it was still an interaction having to do with collegiate matters.

  5. Cathy Young

    True, though he claims he didn’t realize she was a student (her email to him came from a hotmail acount rather than a college one). Of course, as FIRE says, it’s not desirable to communicate with students in this way, but I don’t think it can automatically be taken as an indication of unprofessional conduct in class.

    Though it wouldn’t terribly surprise me if evidence did turn up that he penalized students who expressed views he considers “fascist.” Now, if there was such evidence then the college definitely has a right to initiate disciplinary proceedings!

  6. Pooh

    Cathy, there is also the issue that he put the College’s imprimatur on his missive by his signature, as “Professor”.

    As to the meat of your post, I see the need fore an organization like FIRE, and respect there view of this matter. As I’ve said previously, I come down on the other side of this issue (if barely), in that I think Daly showed a lack of professionalism. While I respect the point that such discipline could somehow ‘chill’ some marginal speech, that speech which is ‘chilled’ is much more likely than not to be ill-tempered. If someone pauses, and rewrites their points in a less threatening and more reasoned way because of this incident, well is that really a bad thing?

  7. Cathy Young

    Pooh — as I read the various arguments on this case, I’m reminded of an old Jewish joke (as in, joke told among Jews, not as in “joke told by anti-Semites”). Two Jewish men in a small town have some kind of dispute and decide to take it to the town rabbi, who is reputed to be very wise. They find the rabbi at the dinner table with his wife, but he very kindly takes the time to hear them out anyway. The rabbi listens to the first man and says, “I think you are absolutely right.” Then the second man speaks, the rabbi listens and says, “You know, I think you’re absolutely right!” Hearing this, the wife says, “That’s ridiculous — they can’t possibly both how be right!” The rabbi thinks about it, turns to his wife and says, “You know something, dear? You’re absolutely right, too!”

    Seriously, there are some good points being made on both sides. This is a borderline case where I think people of good will can come down on either side of the issue.

  8. Pooh

    You know what Cathy, you are absoultely right.

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