Questionable Free Speech at Drexel University

Associate Professor George Ciccariello-Maher is now gone from his position at Drexel University. A year ago, I blogged a brief contingent defense of his controversial “white genocide” tweet. (Contingent because it only applies if he meant what I guessed he meant.) Drexel condemned his tweet at the time, but took no further action against him. It would have been nice if they had explicitly supported his right to free speech, but their actions were in keeping with the principles of free speech: They didn’t stop him from speaking, but they didn’t refrain from using their own free speech to criticize him. 

However, after several other controversial tweets — one criticizing the way our society honors the soldiers who carry out American foreign policy, another blaming the Las Vegas shooter on Trumpism and white entitlement — Drexel placed him on administrative leave in what sounds like a classic case of the “heckler’s veto”:

The university says the issue is safety, but not everyone is buying that explanation.

Drexel’s statement is as follows: “The safety of Drexel’s students, faculty, professional staff and police officers are of paramount concern to Drexel. Due to a growing number of threats directed at Professor George Ciccariello-Maher, and increased concerns about both his safety and the safety of Drexel’s community, after careful consideration the university has decided to place Professor Ciccariello-Maher on administrative leave. We believe this is a necessary step to ensure the safety of our campus.”

Sometimes, giving in to the “heckler’s veto” is unavoidable when the forces of oppression vastly outmatch those defending free speech. If the protests against Ciccariello-Maher overwhelmed Drexel’s campus security and budget to the point where they couldn’t protect the Drexel community from the danger, then shutting down the controversial professor may have been their only way out. Some fights just can’t be won.

That said, here’s how Ciccariello-Maher describes the problems that led to his resignation:

This is not a decision I take lightly; however, after nearly a year of harassment by right-wing, white supremacist media outlets and internet mobs, after death threats and threats of violence directed against me and my family, my situation has become unsustainable.

Sorry, but that doesn’t sound like the level of danger that would justify giving in to the hecklers. I haven’t seen the specific threats (and the specifics certainly could matter) but as a general rule, anonymous threats against public figures are garbage, and they certainly shouldn’t occupy campus security very much. I’m not aware of any actual violence committed against Ciccariello-Maher, and it’s not as if they had thousands of protesters show up to wreak havoc.

Furthermore, all the threats appear to have been against Ciccariello-Maher and his family, not the Drexel community at large, so if Ciccariello-Maher felt unsafe, he could at any time have placed himself on leave. That he chose not to do so may have increased the risk for him, but there’s no reason to believe it endangered anyone else at Drexel.

I’m not sure what to make of his resignation. On the one hand, he did that to himself, which is not Drexel’s problem. On the other hand, this smells a lot like constructive termination. That’s when an employer doesn’t technically terminate an employee, but it makes the employee’s situation so bad — taking away responsibilities, badmouthing them to the public, assigning them all the worst tasks — that they quit on their own. Constructive terminations are common when dealing with employees who are protected from at will termination by law or contract — civil service employees, union employees, and tenured faculty. So it sounds a lot like Drexel found a way to fire a tenured professor for the words that he said.

As a private organization, Drexel has no First Amendment duty to protect Ciccariello-Maher’s speech. However, as FIRE points out in their coverage, Drexel had publicly announced that they supported his freedom of speech only to carry out a private investigation about which they have shown little transparency. Professor Ciccariello-Maher may very well be a rabble rouser, an anti-American jerk, and a colossal bore, but Drexel has not shown itself to be a friend of free speech and academic freedom.

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