Tennessee Tech University seeking to punish two professors for mocking a local government official. In doing so, the university is ignoring First Amendment, common sense, and its own policies promising faculty expressive rights. FIRE is urging Tennessee Tech to reverse its disciplinary findings against the professors and not punish them for exercising their basic First Amendment rights to participate in political speech.
The brouhaha began in February about one failed attempt to rename the mascot of a Putnam County high school, the Algood Redskins. Local county commissioner and assistant professor of nursing of Tennessee Tech Andrew Donadio cheered this result, while the associate professor of the German Julia Gruber disapproved. Gruber's friend, assistant professor of nursing Andrew Smith, also objected to Donadio & # 39; s decision to advise the university's Turning Point USA student department. On Feb. 5, Smith will have a flyer with a picture of Donadio sitting on the iron throne from HBO's Game of Thrones and sword in hand, with the caption:
This racist college professor thought it would be a great idea to help start a Tennessee Tech chapter for this national hate group, where racist college students can band together to harass, threaten, intimidate people of color, feminists, liberals, and the like and terrorize, especially their teachers. Their organization created a national "Professor Watchlist" to harass and intimidate progressive teachers, including many women, African American and Muslim professors.
Professor Donadio and Turning Point USA: You are on our list. Your hate and hypocrisy are not welcome at Tennessee Tech. No unity with racists. Hate speech is not free speech.
Gruber and Smith placed the posters around campus. After a few weeks, the ax fell – Tennessee Tech charged the professors for violating a litany of university policies on unprofessional behavior, harassment, discrimination, threats and harassment.
Gruber and Smith refused to bend the knee. They hired a lawyer to help the administration argue that their phrase was protected by the First Amendment and to explain exactly how it falls within the confines of the university. effort to uphold the faculty's freedom of expression. But their plea fell on deaf ears, and on April 24, Tennessee Tech found them responsible for all charges. They are now waiting for their punishment.
As faculty members of a state university bound by the First Amendment, these professors have the right to speak as private citizens on matters of common interest. They were undoubtedly private citizens, as college professors are presumably not paid to post political flyers on campus. And their criticism of a political group and a local government official clearly concerns public issues.
While the flyer may have offended Donadio and others, for decades the United States Supreme Court has ruled that public universities should not punish individuals just for offensive statements. In Papish vs. Board of Curators of the University of Missourithe court ruled that a state college violated the First Amendment by expelling students for distributing an underground newspaper with the front-page headline "Motherfucker acquitted" with a "political cartoon". . . with police officers raping the Statue of Liberty and the Goddess of Justice, & # 39; dark caption & # 39; With freedom and justice for all & # 39 ;. The Court made it clear that "the mere dissemination of ideas – however insulting good taste – may not be shut down on the campus of a state university in the name of 'conventions of decency'. & # 39; & # 39 ;
Consistent with the First Amendment's robust protection against offensive utterances, there is a danger that vague collegiality and professionalization rules create for professors who expose controversial political utterances. Many otherwise protected utterances, such as the flyer here, can be carried away by chilling calls that teachers have violated professional standards or courtesy of collegiality. As FIRE has warned, such courtesy mandates tend to discourage the kind of broad political and academic discourse that universities promise to facilitate. Tennessee Tech, by escalating a political disagreement among professors into a punishable disciplinary issue, mischarges the expression of issues and misapplies its collegiality policy to suppress protected speech.
As faculty members of a state university bound by the First Amendment, these professors have the right to speak as private citizens on matters of common interest.
Plus, Smith and Gruber's flyer is clearly a parody and falls far short of the legal standard for it real threats or discriminatory harassment. Including the phrase "You're on our list" – reappropriating the aforementioned turning point of the US Professor watchlist – does not even suggest violence and is far too vague to constitute a serious intention to commit physical harm.
Further, the flyer does not list a protected class such as race, gender, or any other immutable characteristic defined by state and federal law, as required by the university. Harassment and discrimination policy. Moreover, mere criticism of the political ideology of an individual or group does not lead to the legal definition of peer intimidation in the educational environment, which requires that the behavior "be so serious, pervasive and objectively offensive, and that so undermines and distracts the victims' educational experience that the … (victims) do not, in fact, have equal access to resources. and denied opportunities of an institution. "
Rather, the flyer represents pure political speech that deserves the highest level of First Amendment protection. It is also squarely protected by Tennessee Tech & # 39; s robust protections for faculty expressive rights. The university committed itself to this in 2018
maintaining a campus as a marketplace of ideas for all students and all faculties in which the free exchange of ideas should not be suppressed because the ideas put forth by some or even most members of the Tennessee Tech community are offensive , be considered unwise, immoral, indecent, obnoxious, conservative, liberal, traditional, radical or misguided.
While Tennessee Tech greatly values courtesy and mutual respect, Tennessee Tech will not use concerns about politeness and mutual respect as a justification to close the discussion of ideas, however offensive, unwise, immoral, indecent, obnoxious, conservative, liberal, traditional, radical , or those ideas may be misleading to some students or faculties.
FIRE is calling on Tennessee Tech to honor its laudable commitment to freedom of speech and its legal obligations under the First Amendment by repealing disciplinary action against Professors Smith and Gruber for their protected political expressions.