Another professor is under fire this week for rabidly anti-Republican views. Clemson School of Computing Assistant Professor Bart Knijnenburg called not just Trump but all Republicans “xenophobic and racist.” He previously called all Republicans “racist scum.” Despite his hateful and intolerant views, I still believe that he has a free speech right to express those views in social media and would oppose efforts to terminate him. Unfortunately, such views are not uncommon among faculty. What made this story stand out is that Knijnenburg appeared to encourage others to find the home address of someone who published an open letter calling for schools to stop admitting Chinese students. It has become a standard practice of some groups to harass and threaten people at home if they express opposing views or contradict a new orthodoxy on our campuses.
This week I testified in the Senate about the erosion of free speech and academic freedom in our universities where professors are being punished or even fired for expressing viewpoints that challenge this new orthodoxy, particularly with regard to racial and political issues.
Professors who express anti-Republican views are rarely subjected to campaigns for removal. Indeed, Change.org recently took down a petition criticizing a professor for declaring “White Lives Don’t Matter.” From a free speech perspective, it is not just the threats against expression but the bias in enforcement that is so concerning. However, that does not change the fact that Knijnenburg is expressing deeply held political and social views in stating that “anyone who still calls themselves a Republican despite all this is xenophobic and racist.”
On his Twitter account, Knijnenburg uses the common acronym “ACAB,” for “all cops are bastards” and proclaims “Burn it down.”
Knijnenburg was previously under fire on Campus Reform for declaring on Facebook that “all Trump supporters, nay, all Republicans, are racist scum.”
What was disconcerting was a professor encouraging the harassment of people with opposing views at their homes. Knijnenburg went to Facebook to attack a man who wrote an open letter to the president of the Clemson University Board of Trustees, asking the university to “keep Chinese nationalists out of Clemson.” The letter reflects a view of various political leaders that Chinese military and intelligence operations are using students to steal data and research from American universities. Knijnenburg profanely attacks the man and then engages in others who want to get “personal” and ask where he lives.
Knijnenburg reportedly responded with “Greenwood. His name is Paul Gilbert and he was an assistant town administrator in Calhoun Falls. And then a zoning administrator in Greenwood. Now retired, I guess.” Knijnenburg later followed up with “lemme know if you find out his address.” He later responded to other comments and said that “part of me wants to just not bother; another part of me wants to make this guy’s life a living hell.”
The involvement of an academic in seeking to harass those with opposing views is a disgrace to our profession. Universities are dedicated to the exchange of ideas and based on the faith that ultimately the more worthy or justified viewpoints will prevail. Knijnenburg does not address the merits of Gilbert’s position as an academic. (I disagree with Gilbert and those seeking to ban Chinese students in part because I believe that it is important for Chinese students to experience the freedoms in this country, including the freedom of speech). Instead of a substantive response, Knijnenburg unleashes profane and personal attacks combined with a threat to make Gilbert’s life a living hell. To many students already believe that such attacks are an acceptable substitute for debate or dialogue on our campuses.
In seeking to intimidate people with opposing views, Knijnenburg confirms that he is more of an advocate than an academic. He and these other commenters want to deter others from expressing opposing views by making Mr. Gilbert an example. While other academics are assaulted or put under police protection for trying to speak freely, Knijnenburg is spurring on the mob.
The problem with being an advocate for free speech and academic freedom is that you often must defend people who would deny both rights in others. Indeed, we often support those who want to silence others while espousing hateful views. While Knijnenburg would “burn down” those things that annoy him, protecting his right to express such views protects us all.
However, Knijnenburg is coming close to the line of protected speech in his encouraging the harassment of other people. We have previously discussed how some faculty have had to be placed under police protection due to such campaigns. The targeting of homes has often led to trespass and even violence. Knijnenburg’s stated desire to burn down part of society can easily be taken as a desire to burn down people who support those institutions. When such speech turns to action, Knijnenburg may find himself beyond the protection of these rights.