When professors' remarks conflict with university culture, which must yield?
- Florida Atlantic University professor Marshall DeRosa is drawing criticism from the campus community for a growing history of remarks, group affiliations and defenses of rhetoric which many consider being supportive of white supremacy.
- An article published in a recent edition of The Nation exposed connections between DeRosa and a neo-Confederate group, which DeRosa says was not a formal endorsement of its ideals but rather a professional stop to discuss Confederate constitutional history. But DeRosa has also drawn criticism for blog posts which some in the FAU say are charged with false narratives about slavery.
- Florida Atlantic officials say they have not yet received a formal complaint about DeRosa, but this is not the first encounter the university has had with potential faculty free speech issues. In 2015, former professor James Tracy was fired for espousing extremist views about the Sandy Hook school shooting and sued the university multiple times before a federal court dismissed his case last year.
Faculty members may have a right to publicly share or publish unpopular or racist views, because of constitutional free speech guarantees, but they should be made aware that they can potentially be dismissed if their words and actions are causing irreparable harm to the institution. The university as an entity has a responsibility to protect itself from faculty quitting, students boycotting and other reactions to perceived hostility which can impact the school's bottom line.
In most cases involving inflammatory speech from faculty members, universities are often pressured to promote free speech and the view that everyone should be open to hearing all views or empowered to ignore those for which they do not care. But given the impact of social media, viral videos and traditional media coverage of issues transmitted by both, it can be difficult for universities to simply call for higher understanding, or to remain silent in the face of growing protest.
Institutions and campus leaders have to consider each case of free speech controversy with the idea of how likely their campuses are to increase the intensity of their response to issues, how likely the media is to contribute to this intensity, and how likely the faculty member can be reasoned with to understand the role of public scholarship in branding. No sensitivity training, no human resources seminar, can overrule an individual's constitutional rights, and to this point, school's should continually hammer home that inalienable personal rights do not necessarily mean that institutions should have to suffer dire consequences in protecting them.
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