Academic Freedom Alliance Letter to San Diego State University

San Diego State University was contacted by the Academic Freedom Alliance in a letter. It requested that the university reaffirm its academic freedom for J. Angelo Corlett, a philosopher.

SDSU was forced to remove Corlett from the class after students complained about a slide that contained examples of racist epithets. This slide had been shown in Corlett’s class on Philosophy, Racism and Justice and Corlett’s class on Critical Thinking. Corlett’s published work has focused on racism and hate speech. He also brought this knowledge to his classes.

Corlett doesn’t appear to currently be being investigated for any violations of university policy. He has been “reassigned”, however, to teach future classes. This administrative action was not about freedom of expression or academic freedom, according to Campus Diversity’s Vice President. I am wrong, the university administrator.

Students objecting to professors’ classes strike at the heart academic freedom protections. San Diego State University has stated that it is against its policies to allow faculty to teach freely and for students to free expression of offensive speech.

This university also breaches its First Amendment obligations. The university explicitly recognizes faculty rights under the First Amendment in its policies. These actions by San Diego State University are very similar to those taken by the Federal Circuit Court in Hardy v. Jefferson County Community College. The community college terminated the employment of the instructor in that instance after students and activists protested his use of racial epithets to oppress others. The opinion is in Hardy case:

This lecture featured a discussion on and an analysis of words which historically have served the needs of dominant cultures. Hardy asked his students to suggest examples. They suggested the terms “girl”, “lady,” and “faggot” as well.

According to the court, such a discussion in a classroom was protected under the First Amendment. Administrators at universities who can be proven to have retaliated against an academic for using constitutionally protected speech may lose qualified immunity.

San Diego State University must immediately restore Professor Corlett’s classroom duties. It should also reevaluate its response to future complaints regarding constitutionally and contractually protected speech.

You can find the following letter in your mailbox:

It is clear that Professor Corlett’s removal from his classroom was a sanction by the university. Also, it is clear that the removal of Professor Corlett from his class in response to his controversial and instructive material is not only relevant to his academic freedom. It also constitutes a grave violation of his academic freedom. The AAUP insists that removing a professor from teaching is a serious sanction. It should not be used unless absolutely necessary. This sanction can only be imposed when administrators or students disagree with the course content. It is clear that academic freedom does not include faculty being removed from their positions or “reassigned”. This must be true if freedom to teach means that faculty can’t be removed from their posts. This assertion of unilateral authority to reassign university instructors to offend students can have profound consequences for professors’ freedom to teach controversial subject matter. If a student objected to the professor’s teaching of critical race theory at a university, they could “reassign” him or her. The consequences for academic freedom are just as severe.

You can read the entire article here.