Academia,  Freedom of Expression

Freedom of speech within education: the case of William Penn

I missed this story about William Penn, a college professor who was suspended for an anti-Republican rant, when it first broke a week or so ago – I don’t think it’s received much coverage outside the US.  It happens to tie in with a discussion which followed a recent post on blacklisting.  When, if at all, is it appropriate to bar or dismiss someone from a particular job because of the views they hold or the party they belong to?  BNP members are currently not allowed to become police officers or prison warders, and I gather one commenter would like to prevent SWP supporters from teaching. This is a difficult question, and it’s hard to know where to draw the line, how to strike a correct (and consistent) balance.

When it comes to teaching it might be asked whether a lecturer’s strong views are intimidating or disadvantaging students who disagree.  This makes the case of Maurice Eisenstein, targeted for anti-Muslim statements on Facebook, rather different from that of William Penn, although I certainly think it would be reasonable for a Muslim student to wonder whether s/he would be treated fairly by him.

Penn’s rhetoric is over the top:

In the excerpted video above (longer cut below), the teacher says, “If you go to the Republican convention in Florida, you see all those old people. … They’re cheap. They don’t want to pay taxes because they have already raped this country and gotten everything out of it they possibly could. They don’t want to pay for your tuition, because who are you? But to me, you’re somebody.

It’s one thing worrying about the racist views of someone in authority, but this doesn’t seem a good way to address students, particularly students whose work he will be grading.

“I’m a college professor,” he said. “If I find out you are a closet racist I am coming after you.

I don’t agree with this piece, protesting that Penn’s suspension ‘tramples free speech’:

University campuses have long been a sacred forum for the open exchange of ideas. Tenure exists to protect professors from being punished for sharing their beliefs.

These values are not to protect the faculty — they exist so students are exposed a variety of viewpoints. Absent this, a college education becomes two-dimensional. To learn, we must step outside our own understanding. Penn’s publicized suspension will hurt more than just him. It will have a chilling effect across campus; professors and students will have reason to worry every time they voice an opinion that might be controversial.

The issue with Penn isn’t that his views are particularly extreme,  but that he seems to have created an atmosphere in which people may feel reluctant to voice dissenting views. (I say’seems’ because the edited video apparently offers a rather distorted view of what happened, suggesting (inaccurately) that the ‘closet racist’ comment was addressed to a particular student who was frowning.)  By contrast, it now occurs to me, I have had civil exchanges of views with a couple of far left activists who are also school teachers – and have no reason to think (though I could be wrong) that they’d deal unfairly or aggressively with pupils who disagreed with them.