Does Free Speech Matter AT UVa?

[NOTE: A slightly shorter version of this post — which has now been UPDATED five times — appeared on Minding The Campus]

A lecturer in the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business and the School of Engineering and Applied Science, Douglas Muir, has been forced to resign [amended: forced to take administrative leave] because his criticism of Black Lives Matter in a Facebook post was “inappropriate” and “inconsistent with the University of Virginia’s values.”

Muir’s Facebook post, now deleted but quoted by the Cavalier Daily, asserted that “Black lives matter is the biggest rasist organisation [sic] since the clan [sic]. Are you kidding me. Disgusting!!!” Muir was responding to comments about a lecture given by Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza at an event in Charlottesville titled “Rooting Out Injustice: Poverty, Race, and the Role of Legal Aid.”

Muir’s statement is obviously provocative (not to mention poorly spelled), but being rapidly forced to flee the campus suggests that the University of Virginia’s vaunted dedication to free speech and “inclusion” does not extend to provocative posts on social media.

“While free speech and open discussion are fundamental principles of our nation and the University,” a late Friday statement from the Dean of Engineering and Applied Science declared, “Mr. Muir’s comment was entirely inappropriate. UVA Engineering does not condone actions that undermine our values, dedication to diversity and educational mission.” The School of Engineering apparently regards a Facebook post as an “action,” not speech, and it deems only “appropriate” speech and speech that does not challenge “diversity” worthy of protection.

The Dean of the Darden School also felt moved to inform everyone that Muir’s personal statement was a personal statement: “The personal comments made by University of Virginia adjunct lecturer Doug Muir on his personal social media accounts do not in any way represent the viewpoint or values of the University of Virginia Darden School of Business.” Will the Darden Dean now be busy checking all faculty tweets and posts to see if they might contain views inconsistent with Darden’s values?

A statement from UVa Provost Tom Katsouleas was even more smarmy, purporting as it did to defend academic freedom and free speech even as it endorsed banishing speech regarded as “inconsistent” with the University’s values. “I was disturbed and saddened to learn of Mr. Muir’s recent statement on his personal Facebook page,” the Provost declared. “This statement is inconsistent with the University of Virginia’s values and with its commitment to the principles of academic freedom…. This position in no way squelches academic freedom, which welcomes dissent and encourages the voices of others whose perspectives may differ from ours — thereby adding new insights to our own. But statements such as Mr. Muir’s do not foster intellectual exploration, nor do they encourage the voices of others.”

If banishing faculty speech some find offensive does not squelch academic freedom, it would appear that UVa’s provost and deans are at best confused about what academic freedom (or squelch) means. If they really mean to insist that a lecturer’s personal comments on social media must not be inconsistent with the University’s values, perhaps they should create a new committee to monitor faculty posts and tweets. They could call it the Un-University Activities Committee, or UUAC.

The fundamental question, in short, is not whether Black Lives Matter is or is not like the Klan. It is whether provosts and deans should be in the business of awarding or withholding UVa’s imprimatur of approval on highly charged political speech and empowered to decide which points of view are legitimate and which are “inappropriate” or “inconsistent with the University of Virginia’s values” or “do not foster intellectual exploration.”

But even if speech is to be monitored and regulated, that cannot be done in a discriminatory manner. In dismissing Mr. Muir because of his criticism of Black Lives Matter, however, UVa seems to be clearly engaged in racial content-based discrimination, since not only does it not ban but in fact welcomes speech on racial issues that is equally if not more offensive.

Consider, for example, the typical invective of Alicia Garza, the co-founder of Black Lives Matter whose recent appearance in Charlottesville provoked Muir’s rant. For example, responding to Donald Trump’s acceptance speech at the Republican convention this summer, Garza stated that “[t]he terrifying vision that Donald J. Trump is putting forward casts him alongside some of the worst fascists in history…. Trump is proposing a new, dark age where police have carte blanche authority to terrorize our communities.”

Garza is obviously fond of comparing Trump to Hitler because she does so repeatedly. And her target is not simply Trump — whom her friend and co-founder of Black Lives Matter Patrisse Cullors calls “a terrorist” — but also Trump’s supporters. “There’s millions of people backing a fascist ideologue,” Garza told Bloomberg News, anticipating by a month BLM supporter Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” description of the same voters.

In a similar vein, no doubt intended to “foster intellectual exploration” and “encourage the voices of others,” Garza responded in The Guardian to those fascists who insist that all lives matter by declaring that “[b]y and large, I’m starting to feel like, if somebody doesn’t want to fucking understand — excuse my language — if somebody can’t see the contradiction of saying all lives matter … then they’re just wilfully [sic] being ignorant, and an asshole.”

If a movement can be judged by its heroes, what does it say about Black Lives Matter that Garza proudly asserts that she uses Assata Shakur’s “powerful demand in my organizing work”? Here’s a description of Shakur, originally known as Joanne Chesimard, from the FBI Most Wanted List:

On May 2, 1973, Chesimard, who was part of a revolutionary extremist organization known as the Black Liberation Army, and two accomplices were stopped for a motor vehicle violation on the New Jersey Turnpike by two troopers with the New Jersey State Police. At the time, Chesimard was wanted for her involvement in several felonies, including bank robbery. Chesimard and her accomplices opened fire on the troopers. One trooper was wounded and the other was shot and killed execution-style at point-blank range.

Chesimard was convicted of first degree murder, but in 1979 she escaped from prison and fled to Cuba. Despite pressure to do so, President Obama refused to demand the return of Chesimard as part of his opening relations with Cuba, a decision supported by Hillary Clinton.

My point, it should go without saying, is not that Alicia Garza should be barred from speaking at University events, although I do think it odd that UVa’s Office of Diversity and Equity invited her to be keynote speaker at a Community celebration of Martin Luther King last winter (cancelled because of a scheduling conflict) inasmuch as Garza, after all, has made it abundantly clear that she does not believe in “diversity” within Black Lives Matter. “[I]t is appropriate and necessary to have strategy and action centered around Blackness without other non-Black communities of color, or White folks for that matter, needing to find a place and a way to center themselves within it,” she has explained. “The women’s movement, the Chicano liberation movement, queer movements, and many more have adopted the strategies, tactics and theory of the Black liberation movement,” but “Progressive movements in the United States have made some unfortunate errors when they push for unity at the expense of really understanding the concrete differences in context, experience and oppression.”

The question here, however, is not the content of Garza’s speech or whether universities should provide a platform for it. It is whether university administrators should be empowered to decide whether comparing the Black Lives Matter movement to the Klan is really beyond the pale of legitimate debate and discourse.

If BLM’s critics are not allowed to compare it to the Klan, what of its supporters? What, for example, will the protectors of UVa’s values do when celebrated Selma director Ava DuVernay’s new film about the incarceration of blacks, 13th, is shown in Charlottesville and predictably elicits some faculty gushing? According to the New York Post, it “wowed audiences at the New York Film Festival and looks like a leading Oscar contender,” no doubt in part because of its “[e]quating Donald Trump supporters with Deep South Lynch mobs.” Could a UVa faculty member now make that equation?

In any event, if UVa’s Provost and Deans insist that a Lecturer’s personal comments on social media must not be inconsistent with the University’s values, why are they not concerned that an official University invitation to Garza to be a keynote speaker at a University event might lead some observers to infer endorsement of her extreme views? Would they dismiss any untenured faculty members who posted or tweeted some of the things Garza says all the time?

No doubt the now problematic standing of free speech at “Mr. Jefferson’s University” will be subject of some discussion at a long-scheduled Symposium on Free Speech on Campus in Charlottesville on October 13-14 sponsored by Charlottesville’s Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Speech. How embarrassing, not to mention ironic, if in the coming year  UVa should earn one of the Jefferson Center’s noted and notorious Muzzle Awards.

UPDATE 10 October

Hans Bader of the Competitive Enterprise Institute argues forcefully, with case citations, that UVa’s actions violate the First Amendment. UVa officials may argue in their defense that they did not fire Muir, that his decision to go on “leave” was voluntary, etc. Even if this defense is true, however, and thus provides something of a shield against legal action, it does nothing to deflect the criticism that the provost’s and deans’ boasts here of their fealty to free speech and academic freedom ring hollow. Mr. Jefferson would not be pleased.

UPDATE II 11 October

I have received several inquiries about whether Muir was fired, whether he voluntarily accepted administrative leave, or whether, as the Charlottesville Daily Progress editorialized yesterday, “[i]t was obvious that the university had pressured him to do so.” My reply: in the absence of an actual lawsuit, it doesn’t matter. The Daily Cavalier reports that Muir “took administrative leave.” Forced to take? Voluntarily took? Doesn’t say. That same article reports that “”An email sent to students stated Muir would return to teach class on Oct. 17.”

Even if UVa did nothing illegal, however, that does not change the fact that academic freedom and respect for First Amendment values at UVa are in tatters. Apparently UVa will protect its faculty speech only when that speech is “appropriate,” does not threaten “diversity,” and does not conflict with University values.

UPDATE III 13 October

In a statement quoted in today’s Charlottesville Daily Progress Doug Muir said his comparison of Black Lives Matter to the Klan was “wrong,” and he apologized for “the pain it has caused this wonderful community.” And from the University:

In an email Wednesday, university spokesman Anthony de Bruyn said Muir “volunteered” to take his leave. “The University did not take disciplinary action against Mr. Muir and he remains on the teaching faculty,” de Bruyn said.

So far as I am aware, no spokesman for the University has withdrawn, modified, or clarified statements from the Provost and the Deans of the Darden Business School and The School of Engineering and Applied Science indicating that academic freedom does not protect speech that is not “appropriate” or “consistent with University values.” That is a far cry from what Jefferson (“Mr. Jefferson” in UVa parlance) wrote in an often-quoted letter:  “this institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. [F]or here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”

Some errors apparently can be tolerated, but not others.

UPDATE IV 14 October

In the last paragraph of my original post I mentioned a Symposium on Free Speech on Campus sponsored by the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Speech at the UVa Law School on October 13 and 14. Helene (the Discriminating Wife) and I attended both days. Although the symposium had been long planned, the Doug Muir controversy was ever-present yesterday and today — either as a ghost-like invisible presence or very much alive in the presentations by University President Teresa Sullivan and UCLA law professor (and old friend) Eugene Volokh.

Eugene’s comments were incisively critical of the official UVa statements that I’ve quoted above. For her part, President Sullivan praised her provost and deans for their statements “defending academic freedom” and insisting that Mr. Muir’s decision to go on a short administrative leave was purely “voluntary.”

One of the comments from the floor noted that there is a big difference between the University’s initial statements — that Muir had “agreed” to take leave, suggesting that the idea was proposed to him — and it’s later statements, such as President Sullivan’s,  that his decision was purely voluntary.

During the question period another commenter (OK, I confess; it was I) observed that one reasonable way to describe the Muir affair is that a UVa lecturer had been hounded from his classroom, even if for only a short while, by what amounted to a heckler’s veto and that it was sad UVa’s officials sided with the hecklers. True, I noted, UVa may not have done anything illegal and it is true the provost and deans did give lip service to their commitment to academic freedom, but only to explain why Muir’s “inappropriate” statement “not consistent with the University’s values” was not protected by it.  [NOTE: My criticism of President Sullivan and other University officials begins at 59:25 of this video posted by The Thomas Jefferson Center.]

UPDATE V 18 October

In a comment on the the version of this post that appeared on Minding The Campus, Gary Fouse, an adjunct lecturer at the University of California – Irvine, wrote that he has “attacked BLM, Students for Justice in Palestine, the Muslim Student Union and others including the UCI administration and Janet Napolitano, the UC president. I also believe there is a racist strain in BLM.”

And, he added, “I have to say that UCI and the UC establishment have always respected my right of free speech. My part-time job has never been threatened. This stands in stark contrast to UVA.”

Say What? (1)

  1. Claire Boston October 13, 2016 at 11:39 pm | | Reply

    I don’t care if it is politically correct or not, but I call ’em as I see ’em. And “Black Lives Matter” is just as much a racist hate group as the KKK. They are reminiscent of the Black Panthers and their anti-white hate rhetoric. Their defense of black criminals who attempt to murder cops has alienated many who would otherwise be sympathetic. Blue Lives Matter, White Lives Matter, Brown Lives Matter, Red Lives Matter, Yellow Lives Matter, ALL Lives Matter. Anyone who is offended by that sentiment seriously needs their head examined.

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