David Cole (of the ACLU and Georgetown Law) on the Ilya Shapiro Matter

David Cole is a long-standing Georgetown law professor and the current National Legal Director at the UCLA. He writes for the New York Review

Although Shapiro’s message was offensive and demeaning, academic freedom can be understood to refer to anything. [Shapiro’s]Two tweets are not enough to constitute a firing offense. Without academic freedom, voices that are suppressed will be as likely as those who oppose affirmative action.

Universities and professors in America first defended academic freedom against perceived anarchists and Communists. The universities argued that free exchange and inquiry were essential for academic endeavors. Therefore, the state must recognize the independence of university officials and their free speech rights. The Supreme Court’s academic freedom cases have all involved government efforts to banish Communists from campus….

If universities don’t respect this principle [of academic freedom]What will their resistance look like to outsiders who are trying to restructure and reestablish themselves within the institutions they have created? …

This is the case of doing what the voice majority requires [i.e., firing Shapiro]It would be a grave mistake. I unequivocally reject Shapiro’s contention that it is improper to seek to rectify the shameful fact that no Black woman has ever served on the Court—just as there was nothing wrong in Ronald Reagan’s commitment to appoint the first woman, or President Trump’s statement that he would pick a woman to fill Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s seat. Shapiro’s tweet, I thought, was offensive.

But that doesn’t mean he should lose his job—or that the Georgetown community will be better-off if it banishes him. If academic freedom is respected, it cannot be grounds for dismissal to express one’s opinion on affirmative actions or other matters of public discussion, even if that was offensive.

Academic freedom isn’t absolute, just like freedom of speech in general. This principle does not cover those who use targeted racial harassment and threats or create a hostile atmosphere. However, Shapiro’s tweets are not close to these lines. In such an example, Shapiro immediately deleted the tweets and apologized. His commitment to academic freedom requires tolerance for all who disagree with him. Many have expressed concerns that Shapiro will make students of color feel at ease taking his classes. He will not be teaching any mandatory courses as his main role, but he will run a campus conservative institution.

Georgetown stated it also investigated whether Shapiro’s Twitter comments violated its rules for “professional conduct.” However, the term open-ended can be used to suspend a teacher for provocation, or else no one will have any protection of their free speech rights.

Most importantly, if universities start policing controversial speech within their own intellectual community, they will undercut their standing to object to others’ efforts to police them….

Particularly important is academic freedom in this toxic political environment. A commitment to pluralism is essential for the survival of our multi-cultural democracy. Deep polarization is the hallmark of our society. Left and right are becoming more extreme and intolerant. Many people don’t speak to or hear from those they disagree with. University has the potential of being a crucial antidote. The university can provide a safe space for people of widely differing opinions to live together and learn. However, it cannot do this unless they practice the tolerance of disagreement which is often absent elsewhere.

Georgetown University is a private university and therefore not under the First Amendment. Like most institutions of higher education, Georgetown has made a commitment to free expression of ideas. Even speech “most people” in the University community is protected by its policy. [consider]Offensive, imprudent, moral, or poorly conceived. Georgetown will have to adhere to its own standards due the fact that Shapiro has been demanded by so many faculty members, students, student groups, and other organizations. Leaders must be able to resist the voice of the majority. This is what makes it more difficult. Moments like this are what test leaders’ commitment to tolerance and diversity. It is a good response to the message, but firing the speaker is not.

(For my personal view, please see the following post. Also see this letter from faculty.