The Volokh Conspiracy

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Free Speech

"Texas A&M Suspended Professor Accused of Criticizing Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick in Lecture"

"The professor, an expert on the opioids crisis, was placed on paid administrative leave and investigated, raising questions about the extent of political interference in higher education, particularly in health-related matters."


So reports the Texas Tribune (Kate McGee & James Barragan); though the leave was lifted after two weeks, this strikes me as quite troubling. (I've reached out to Texas A & M to see if they can provide more of a statement than what is quoted in the Texas Tribune.) Here's FIRE's letter to the Texas A & M Office of the President today (footnotes omitted, moved text indicated with {/}):

FIRE is deeply troubled by The Texas Tribune's report on Texas A&M University's censure and investigation of Clinical Assistant Pharmacy Professor Joy Alonzo for criticizing the Lieutenant Governor. {This letter reflects our under­standing of the pertinent facts, based on public information. We appreciate that you may have additional information to offer and invite you to share it with us.} We urge you to take swift, decisive action to ensure the university will meet its First Amendment obligations to respect faculty's core expressive rights.

When citizens criticize public officials, the First Amendment's protection is "at its zenith." Public university faculty also have broad expressive and academic freedom rights to raise those criticisms in their classrooms, which the Supreme Court has held "occupy a special niche in our constitutional tradition," and where "government should be extremely reticent to tread." {Numerous courts—including the Supreme Court and the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, whose decisions are binding on Texas A&M—have recognized the First Amendment's protection of freedom of speech is closely intertwined with academic freedom. See, e.g., Buchanan v. Alexander, 919 F.3d 847, 852-53 (5th Cir. 2019) (academic speech enjoys First Amendment protection even if it occurs pursuant to a professor's official duties.); DeJohn v. Temple Univ., 537 F.3d, 301, 314 (3rd Cir. 2008) ("[F]ree speech is of critical importance [at univer­sities] because it is the lifeblood of academic freedom[.]"); Sweezy v. New Hampshire, 354 U.S. 234, 250 (1957) ("academic freedom [is an area] in which government should be extremely reticent to tread.").}

Texas A&M's punishment of Alonzo to please powerful political forces is a stunning abdication of its constitutional obligations, deeply chilling faculty and student expression on campus. It is of no consequence that the Alonzo investigation ultimately resolved in her favor, as the First Amendment prohibits state actors like Texas A&M from any action that "would chill or silence a person of ordinary firmness from future First Amendment activities[.]" Any adverse action taken in response to protected expression—including investigations by state actors with disciplinary authority—can violate the First Amendment.

An informed citizenry depends on, among other things, public university faculty performing educational duties free from outside influence. When confronted with inevitable pressures to encroach on academic freedom—whether from powerful alumni, donors, or, as here, politicians—institutions like Texas A&M must abide by the constitutional principles that instill trust in our public universities.

Because Texas A&M has violated that trust, and the law, it must publicly renounce its investigation into Alonzo for her protected expression and recommit to pro­tecting faculty's expressive freedoms moving forward. Given the urgent threat to faculty rights, we request a substantive response to this letter no later than close of business on Friday, July 28, confirming the university will do so.

Thanks to Theodore Shulman for the pointer.