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Extramural speech and Protest in Support of Black Lives Matter and Your Job

June 23, 2020 / PSU-AAUP

by Jennifer Ruth, PSU-AAUP VP of Academic Freedom and Grievances


We’ve had some queries from faculty and academic professionals who want to know what protections they have when speaking out in support of Black Lives Matter, Defunding the Police, and/or Disarming PSU, whether they are speaking out through social media or through the daily protests in which we exercise our freedom of assembly.  

First, I want to stress that your protections are very strong. Extramural speech is generally protected by the First Amendment and free speech is your right as a citizen. (Extramural speech when manifestly part of your work as an academic or academic professional might be trickier, a problem I’ll return to in a moment.) You should not stop yourself from participating in the overdue reckoning we’re experiencing in America out of fear for your livelihood. President Stephen Percy has made clear that the institution as a whole stands with Black Lives Matter.  This indicates that even if a donor or Board of Trustees member were to take offense at something one of us says or does, we will likely have the institution’s support if we acted in good faith as a contribution to the fight against systemic racism. 

Our national organization, The American Association of University Professors (AAUP), issued this statement today, Statement on Racial Justice in Higher Education. It might go some ways towards reassuring those of us who care about changing America for the better that we have some protection against retaliation for BLM and BLM-related activity. 

All of that said, as your Vice President for Academic Freedom and Grievances, I want to observe that people who work specifically in areas that speak to, or overlap with, the issues being fervently discussed in the nation are more vulnerable. The AAUP Statement on Racial Justice in Higher Education highlights this when it says, “in the current political climate, Black studies, Latinx studies, indigenous studies, and other ethnic studies programs are especially vulnerable to political interference, including cuts to funding and program elimination” and calls for chapters and university administrators to “affirm the importance of programs that challenge systemic racism to fulfilling higher education’s fundamental contribution to the common good.” The issue here is that if one’s extramural speech is clearly part of one’s professional and scholarly profile, then the case could be made that one’s statements reflect on one’s “competence” and “fitness to serve.” One’s academic freedom, rather than one’s right to free speech, then becomes the issue. The example often invoked is that a historian of Germany who denies the Holocaust on Twitter might rightly raise doubts as to their competence. 

We, here at PSU, might acknowledge (I hope) that we do have a few faculty whose use of social media raises this type of doubt. The relatively new and unprecedented way that social media platforms enable individuals to bypass the more traditional mechanisms of our professions so as to rally people in ways that (arguably) undermine democracy and (less arguably and more obviously) diminish people’s humanity is similar to the way the President of the United States uses Twitter to bypass the checks and balances built into the government as it once operated. I personally wonder about a classic liberal conception of academic freedom that has, on balance, done much more good than harm but today protects the anti-BLM and proto-authoritarian forces in our midst as forcefully as it does everyone else. Perhaps that’s a topic worth PSU-AAUP discussing as a chapter. 

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