The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent

Campus Free Speech

Johns Hopkins Investigating TA Who Tweeted About Whether to Lower Grades of "Zionist Students"

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

The Johns Hopkins News-Letter reports:

The Office of Institutional Equity (OIE) has opened an investigation into comments made by Rasha Anayah, a teaching assistant (TA) and graduate student in the Department of Chemistry, following reports that several of her tweets targeted Zionist and Jewish students.

"[E]thical dilemma: if you have to grade a Zionist students exam, do you still give them all their points even though they support your ethnic cleansing? like idk," one tweet read.

A poll accompanying the Nov. 15 tweet asked respondents to choose between "yes rasha. be a good ta" and "free palestine! fail them."

Anayah has been a TA for "Applied Chemical Equilibrium and Reactivity" for two years. This fall, she served as the head TA for the course.

TAs and university professors should of course be free to express whatever views they want, whether anti-Zionist, anti-Semitic, anti-Palestinian, anti-Catholic, anti-conservative-Protestant, anti-Muslim, anti-Republican, anti-Democrat, anti-black, anti-white, or anything else. To the extent that some students worry as a result that the instructors will grade them down based on their race, religion, politics, etc., I don't think that worry can justify suppressing such speech; if it did, then a vast range of speech would be stripped of academic freedom protection.

(Note that of course discrimination in grading based on students' political affiliation, and not just based on race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, etc., is unethical in a university; and at public universities it's unconstitutional under the First Amendment. Though of course grading of an exam can't be content-neutral—it must evaluate the substance of the speech being graded—it can't properly rely on a student's ideological views outside the exam.)

But if instructors publicly discusses the possibility that they will indeed grade down students based on the students' ideology, ethnicity, religion, race, and the like (e.g., by saying "idk" whether "Zionist" students should be treated this way), then it seems to me that the university should indeed investigate whether such discrimination has indeed taken place, and make clear to instructors and students that such discrimination is forbidden.

And, of course, this distinction isn't just limited to statements that suggest discriminatory treatment. If university professors publicly praises violent revolution, their speech shouldn't be restricted. If they Tweet, "Ethical dilemma: Should I sabotage some of the research I'm involved with if it advances capitalist oppression [or, if you prefer, if it advances Socialist oppression]? idk," I think the university should investigate whether such sabotage has happened or is planned.

Likewise, if medical school clinical professors condemn abortion as murder, their speech shouldn't be restricted. If they Tweet, "Ethical dilemma: If a patient asks me whether her pregnancy is too far along to have a safe and legal abortion, should I lie and say 'yes, it's too late,' to protect the innocent baby's life? idk," the university should investigate that as well.

According to the article, by the way, the TA had previously also tweeted this, which suggests that her objections aren't just to "Zionist" in the sense of ideology:

[D]idn't get pinned with an israeli or some bitch white boy to have to share my knowledge with …. [W]e had an undergrad in lab who had been on birthright and had one of the street signs to tel aviv on her laptop. it stabbed me every time she opened it. if i had been paired to [o]ne of them or one of these conceited white boys i would have lost it.

The TA's response:

In regards to my teaching and evaluation of students, I have always acted with the utmost integrity and fairness…. I am a dedicated teacher and scholar with a commitment to social justice and to my role. My record as a teaching assistant is a testament to these facts.

It's not clear whether "utmost integrity and fairness" and "a commitment to social justice" would, in her view, preclude discrimination against "Zionists," require such discrimination, or something else. (Thanks to Prof. Glenn Reynolds [Instapundit] for the pointer.)