How About a Little Free Speech Protection for Unprotected Adjunct Professors?

Kenneth Storey, an adjunct sociology professor at the University of Tampa, was recently fired after he insinuated on Twitter that Hurricane Harvey was “karma” for Texans voting “red” in the last election. After vague “discussions” with Storey—and a fair bit of criticism from the American Association of University Professors—the university technically reinstated him and accepted his resignation.

This past spring, Lars Maischak, an adjunct history professor at Fresno State, tweeted, “To save American democracy, Trump must hang. The sooner and the higher, the better,” hashtag, “the resistance.” Breitbart caught wind of this and made him famous. Maischak won’t be teaching this semester, despite the fact that his contract doesn’t technically expire until next year.

And Kevin Allred, an adjunct at Montclair State in New Jersey, got fired for a tweet several weeks before he even started teaching. When Allred tweeted he wished someone would just shoot Trump, Montclair administrators denied that the school had ever hired Allred.

This pattern is playing out again and again as colleges attempt to avoid the backlash from professors getting politically aggressive online. It’s a given colleges should be able to fire bad professors and replace them with better ones. But it’s often hard to figure out when colleges are firing adjuncts because they’re incompetent and unfit, or because they’re afraid of bad publicity and student protest.

On many campuses, students know they can force administrative action if they stir up enough controversy. They have gotten speakers like Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos disinvited and have called for administrators to be fired for questioning the political narratives surrounding sexual assault. Student activists can effectively shut down the speech of professors, who hope to avoid their students’ ire (like those at Evergreen State).

Adjunct professors have less job security and without tenure are not permanent members of staff. In many states they are employed at-will, which means a public college doesn’t need a reason to fire them. When administrators fire professors for distasteful or offensive speech, although they’re well within their rights to do so, they create environments where free speech can’t thrive. Professors must always wonder whether their controversial ideas cross a line.

Colleges should be able to fire their professors (perhaps even those with tenure), but it seems administrators are afraid of the monsters they created—they don’t want to be in the forefront of the next national news scandal, and they act accordingly.

There is a clear tension for libertarians here. Of course, there will always be a limit to what type of speech is acceptable to society at large—tweets advocating ethnic cleansing or Nazism would most probably probably result in firing. That line isn’t quite being crossed by these professors, but they’re still experiencing retribution.

So far, most of the scandals have involved speech by progressive professors who think Trump should receive the death penalty, or think natural disasters are an act of divine retribution on Republicans. But conservative or libertarian professors could face dismissal for any speech administrators deemed outrageous.

The ability of adjunct professors to speak freely matters if you genuinely care about ideological diversity. If a professor wants to make a foolish claim that Texans deserved disaster for their political preferences, other people, students and professors, should be free to counter with fiery and, yes, ridiculous tweets of their own.

Rather than fearing and curbing political speech, what if administrators believed more ideas in the marketplace is better than fewer—regardless of ideology?

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