“Oklahoma Christian University ‘Demands’ Free Speech,” but Allegedly Fires Prof for Inviting Gay Guest Speaker

From the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (Alex Morey & Aaron Terr):

What happens when a school of religious education is “committed” to Christian education? You can also see it here According to its mission, it “expects freedom of inquiry as well as expression.” Teachers may feel blindsided when they are punished for speaking out against the law.

Example: Oklahoma Christian University Professor Michael O’Keefe was fired last week after he invited a homosexual guest speaker and used two swear words in telling O’Keefe a story. [apparently “dick” and “bitch” -EV] ….

To quote Prof. O’Keefe’s lawyer,

We believe Mr. O’Keefe got fired for inviting a speaker to his class at the senior level, “The Business of Branding Yourself.” The topic of overcome obstacles, developing resilience, and character was one of the subjects covered. Oklahoma Christian alumni and adjunct professor at Oklahoma Christian was among the speakers. He has been a speaker for Oklahoma Christian since 1992. He is gay, too.

This issue can be polarizing in the religious community. However, it’s a fact of life and something to talk about within an academic institution. He wanted students to expect that the world will be different from theirs. It was not a proclamation of gay rights, but that’s what the speaker said.

Return to FIRE Analysis:

If O’Keefe’s dismissal by OC was true, it would indicate that the university is abandoning its commitments of academic freedom and free speech.

As a private institution, OC is not bound by the First Amendment, but the university chooses to make strong promises of expressive freedom—promises it must keep. Although OC claims to limit these rights according to its religious mission, they aren’t very clear and the application of these limits in O’Keefe’s instance conflicts with high-minded policy language that protects academic freedom and free speech.

OC can’t have it both ways: Absent clear, consistent, and precisely defined limits on expressive freedom, O’Keefe’s firing cannot stand….

FIRE recognizes that not all people share our commitment to freedom of expression. “It is crucial for faculty and students to be able to choose to attend an institution that values certain values, which are different from traditional colleges.” Private universities are given a warning rating. It is clear And Consistently Statements that they place certain values over freedom speech are made by prospective students or faculty.

But problems arise when a university sends mixed messages—when it makes rousing endorsements of free speech one moment, but suggests its constituents’ speech is not actually free the next. Faculty and students are left confused about their expression rights when free speech is part and parcel of a complex hierarchy of competing value.

Privat universities who wish to prioritize other values than free speech must be clear that this is the case and what extent expressive rights are being restricted. These limits must be made clear to campus community members. Only then is an administration justified in enforcing them….

The Academic Policy Manual of OC contains several commitments to academic freedom and free speech, but also contradictory and vague language giving the university authority under certain circumstances to restrain expression.

Take OC’s policy regarding outside speakers, which seems clear enough—at first:

Any faculty member can invite speakers from all political ideologies for their classes, on subjects that relate to their topic matter.

But OC also adds the following caveat:

However, this freedom doesn’t include: giving the impression the faculty member is speaking for the university; trying to use the university to advance a political agenda; or materially detracting the course’s purpose.Defending the university’s mission. [Emphasis added.]

Similar promises are made in OC’s Academic Policy Manual, which also includes vague guidelines for restricting speech. OC, for instance, “embraces, celebrates, and encourages openness and the inclusive spirit and unrelenting pursuit of truth,” and that “the mission of the University requires freedom of inquiry, expression, and inquiry.” According to the manual, “All Christian academics, especially the Faculty must feel secure to seek ideas and challenge public opinion and explore evidence wherever it leads.” What’s more:

Members of the Oklahoma Christian Community are allowed to conduct scholarly inquiry and publish their results. They can also discuss controversial issues and points of view relevant to their academic areas without restriction from the University.

The manual also expressly recognizes faculty members’ right to teach controversial material, though it is “expected … that a spirit of Christian charity, common faith, and loyalty to the unique University mission will prevail and that questions will be raised in ways that seek to strengthen rather than undermine faith.”

A second section explains the “heavy responsibility” that faculty have to support the institution’s tenets and recognize the authority of Scriptures. The university should “impose limits on academic freedom only when there’s clear and immediate harm to the institution’s mission or integrity,” however, any limitations must be narrowly understood so that they don’t hinder the exchange of ideas. …

These policies don’t reflect clarity. These are the results of university trying to be both: bragging about a commitment towards the free thought, inquiry and values that most expect from a higher education institution while also allowing the possibility to deviate from that commitment for any other purpose. Despite vague mentions of restrictions on academic freedom, OC doesn’t clearly and consistently subordinate academic freedom and free speech to any other values. Faculty members understand the limits and limitations on these rights. Contrary to popular belief, more than once the Academic Policy Manual affirms that ConsistencyThese values should be accompanied by a religious purpose.

OC’s policies are not fair warning to its faculty regarding the supposed restrictions on their academic freedom. If a faculty member reads these policies, he could conclude that they still have the rights to debate controversial topics and to host speakers in their classes. These freedoms are compatible with the university’s mission. OC has to enforce these policies in accordance with this reasonable expectation. O’Keefe’s situation is different. He was invited to speak as a guest speaker in accordance with OC’s outside speaker and free speech policies.

If OC is going to penalize faculty for having a controversial speaker, they should not tell them that they can “freely pursue scholarly inquiry, publish results and debate controversial topics and views relevant to their academic areas without undue restraint or fear of reprisal by sources within the University”.

However, the university keeps its word.

OC should clarify its commitment to academic freedom and free speech in writing and not ignore any controversy.

A private university could also forbid gay speakers from their faculty, as well as speakers telling stories about their experiences as gay persons, and speakers advocating for the rights of gays. This would make the university look bad as an institution that promotes thoughtful thinking about the world. Even universities that teach religious views which condemn homosexuality, should equip their students with the skills necessary to cope with an environment where there are gay people and those who hold views different to that of the university. However, the university must not guarantee freedom in scholarly inquiry nor the right to debate controversial issues and perspectives. Then fire faculty members for hosting gay speakers.

Because they would still be able to talk about all topics, I believe a university policy prohibiting faculty members from using the terms “dick”, “bitch” would be better. I don’t believe it is appropriate to prohibit the use of words from accounts or sources that relate to real events. may have been the case here.)

However, such a policy should be clearly stated. I think it is clear that firing someone for using such language by a guest speaker, would not be appropriate. It would deter others from inviting the least reputable guest speakers. It is doubtful that university has such a policy. The speaker was likely gay, so firing him for using vulgar words by guests speakers seems to be the cause. This is not to say that such a categorical policy shouldn’t be illegal. I am merely stating that it would interfere with maintaining the university as an institution where students and teachers can discuss serious matters.

KFOR-TV (Natalie Clydesdale)

KFOR contacted Oklahoma Christian officials and asked them to address the allegations O’Keefe was dismissed for “bringing in an unrelated guest speaker who happened to be homosexual.” Stephen Eck, OC’s Chief Law Counsel, said these things:

The university has completed a comprehensive review and decided to stop employment. In every decision made by the university, students will be considered first.