There is an interesting and difficult controversy surrounding freedom of speech at Tennessee Tech University. Two professors, Julia Gruber and Andrew Smith, handed out a flyer accusing another professor, Andrew Donadio, of being a racist and saying he was “on our list”. You are now faced with a possible discipline. It seems that this mess started because Donadio applauded a little too loudly at a meeting of the Putnam County School Board. Seriously.According to websites like Inside Higher Education, Gruber (as Associate Professor of German) was present at the meeting to consider changing the name of Algood Middle School Redskins. The board rejected the proposal, and Donadio, an assistant professor of nursing at Tennessee Tech and a local county commissioner, applauded loudly. What he didn’t know was that Gruber was sitting in front of him and found his applause exaggerated and insulting. Gruber then contacted Smith, an English professor at Tennessee Tech. Smith had problems with Donadio because he was a consultant for Turning Point USA. The Conservative group is often the target of liberal professors and activists because they maintain a professor watchlist that records faculties making “radical” or biased comments in class. The group insists that they try not only to expose such prejudices, but also to enable students to avoid such classes.Smith and Gruber distributed a threatening-looking flyer from Donadio on a knife chair (aka The Game of Thrones) accusing him of “hate speech” and of being a racist. There is no evidence to support any of the claims.
The flyer partially stated:
“This racist college professor thought it was a great idea to start a Tennessee Tech chapter for this national hate group, where racist students can band together to harass, threaten, intimidate, and so forth people of color, feminists, liberals and the like to terrorize, in particular [sic] their teachers. Your organization created a national “Professor Watchlist” to harass and intimidate progressive educators, including many women, African American and Muslim professors.
Professor Donadio and Turning Point USA. You are on our list. Your hatred and hypocrisy are not welcome at Tennessee Tech. No unity with racists. Hate speech is not free speech. “
After Donadio filed a complaint, campus police identified the professors using security materials. The flyer’s notice of being on a list was viewed as threatening, and the professors were also found to violate two express guidelines. First, they must “behave fairly, honestly, in good faith and in accordance with the highest ethical principles and professional standards. Second, they must “create an environment that promotes academic freedom, diversity, fair treatment and respect for all faculties, staff, students and the general public”.
It is difficult to defend the behavior of Smith and Gruber, who clearly tried to harass a colleague for his political views. They embody the intolerance of opposing views that destroy higher education and freedom of expression. Turning Point is a recognized group of students on campus who sought to demonize Smith and Gruber and label them as racists. The obvious intention is to make it more difficult for students and faculty to support the group.
However, this was also an act of freedom of speech. They have the right to speak out against a colleague, and they insist that the flyer’s reference to the list should model Turning Point’s listing. I don’t see the reference as a believable threat.
My second concern is that the faculty guidelines are written in such a general and ambiguous way that they can be used arbitrarily or whimsically.
That leaves us confused. The actions of Smith and Gruber were, in my opinion, reprehensible in calling a colleague a racist who engages in hate speech. It was unfair and unsupported. If it were true, Smith and Gruber could have filed a complaint with the university. They could also have written or spoken against his views instead of spreading rumors or allegations anonymously. They lacked the integrity or the courage to do so.
Instead, they tried to create a backlash on campus against a colleague. It is therefore difficult to accept their efforts to claim victim status after attempting to harass Donadio for applauding too loudly and taking views they reject.
I believe Smith and Gruber’s conduct is worthy of condemnation and possible official reprimand. I would not support dismissing them or removing them from office. Repeated behavior could warrant greater punishment. This is a close question for me as freedom of speech values are at stake on both sides. The problem for me is the effort to harass and defame a colleague in this type of campaign. They also attempted to label a group of students as racist without filing a formal complaint or providing evidence to support the charges.
One way for Donadio could be to seek civil liability for defamation, but that avenue would pose serious challenges. Donadio is a civil servant and a public figure due to his position in the district and his public interest representation.
The standard for defamation of public figures and officials in the United States is the result of a decision in the New York Times over 50 years ago against Sullivan. Ironically, this is the very environment in which the opinion was written. The case came from the time of the split in the civil rights movement. The New York Times had advertised seven times about the abuse of civil rights activists and the arrest of Martin Luther King Jr. Montgomery Public Safety Officer LB Sullivan sued for defamation and won under Alabama law. He received $ 500,000 – a big judgment for the time. Sullivan’s lawsuit was one of several civil actions brought against Nordic media under state law that reported violence against freedom marchers. The judgments posed a viable threat to both the media and the average citizen if they criticized our politicians.
The Supreme Court ruled that tort law cannot be used to override the protection of freedom of speech or the free press provided by the First Amendment. The Court sought to give the media some “breathing space” by formulating this standard, which now applies to both civil servants and public figures.
It would be difficult to sue Smith and Gruber for allegations that Donadio is a racist as that can be considered an opinion and therefore protected language. Liability for tortious acts for the statements in the flyer would violate the fundamental rights of freedom of expression.
Of course, Smith and Gruber clearly tried to harass and silence Donadio (as well as students who are members of this group), but they are not the measure of freedom of speech. They are the test of the principles of free speech. We often need to protect the language of people like Smith and Gruber who have little tolerance or respect for the freedom of speech or the academic freedoms of others.