The Volokh Conspiracy

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Campus Free Speech

A Good Statement on Faculty Speech from Syracuse


I'm a believer in positive reinforcement, and when university leaders do the right thing they should get credit for doing so. Kent Syverud, the president of Syracuse University and a former law professor, did the right thing. Other university presidents should take notes.

An assistant professor of political science at Syracuse chose to use the anniversary of September 11th to make a point about "heteropatriarchal capitalist systems." Her tweet generated some backlash. The university responded as universities should in such cases—by defending free speech and avoiding any temptation to praise or condemn the professorial speech in question. The full statement:

This weekend marked the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. It was a time to reflect on the senseless loss of life, the heroism of many and how that event shaped our country and the world.

Recently, one of our professors shared thoughts on 9/11 on social media. These comments have been the subject of much scrutiny and vehement disagreement by critics. That is their right, just as our professor has the right to free speech, however uncomfortable it may make anyone feel. What cannot be tolerated are the harassment and violent threats that we have seen in response that have been directed at this professor. Our Department of Public Safety is in contact with the professor and has engaged the support of federal, state and local law enforcement agencies.

Some have asked the University to condemn the professor's comments and others have demanded the professor's dismissal. Neither of those actions will happen. As the home of the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, free speech for all people across the political spectrum, within the limits of the law and the University's anti-harassment policy, is one of our key values. Speech can be offensive, hurtful or provocative. Still, Syracuse University will stand by the principles of free speech and by our commitment to keeping our community safe in the face of threats and harassment.

The statement in this case echoes the language Syverud used to defend a different faculty member a few years ago who drew controversy over her remarks in response an "anti-Sharia Law" protest.

As some have noted, Syverud was much less vocal when a professor was targeted by campus activists and denounced by members of his senior administration for calling COVID-19 the "Wuhan Flu or the Chinese Communist Party virus." On that occasion, FIRE had to remind Syracuse about its obligations when professors say controversial things. Far from vocally defending that professor, Syracuse instead suspended him and launched an investigation over whether he should be further sanctioned and perhaps fired, contributing to FIRE awarding Syracuse a "Lifetime Censorship Award." That professor's case dragged on for months before Syracuse finally reinstated him.

One hopes that Syracuse has learned its lesson and will now aggressively defend free speech regardless of whether it is off-campus right-wing activists or on-campus left-wing campus activists attacking it. In this case at least the university did a good job, and it should keep its statement handy as a template for the next time someone gets upset because a professor said something naughty.