Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Academic Freedom

  This is my first post of the New Year and references events that have happened over the last two weeks of 2012. I’m going to posit that there is a systemic effort to intimidate or silence academics that are too political (i.e. challenge the current power structure) in the substance of their social media usage based on two instances which have not been widely reported in the blogosphere and definitely not addressed at all in the mass media. Erik Loomis, an untenured professor at the University of Rhode Island, made a tweet statement that is reiterated in the video above and was about to be proverbially thrown under the bus by the university in order to appease right wing critics when online compatriots took up the call for justice.

  On December 19, 2012, the Crooked Timber blog made the following public statement:

Erik Loomis is no stranger to this blog. A gifted young scholar of US labor and environmental history, Loomis is also a blogger at Lawyers, Guns and Money. Many of us have tussled and tangled with him, most recently over whether leftists should vote for Obama. We have often disagreed with Loomis, not always pleasantly or politely, and he has certainly given as good as he has got.

But now we must stand by Loomis’s side and speak up and out on his behalf, for he has become the target of a witch hunt, and as an untenured professor at the University of Rhode Island, he is vulnerable. Loomis needs our solidarity and support, and we must give it to him.

This past Friday, in the wake of the tremendous grief and outrage millions of people felt over the Newtown mass shooting, Loomis tweeted the following:

I was heartbroken in the first 20 mass murders. Now I want Wayne LaPierre’s head on a stick.
Wayne LaPierre is the head of the National Rifle Association.

It seems obvious to us that when Loomis called for LaPierre’s head on a stick, he had in mind something like this from the Urban Dictionary:

A metaphor describing retaliation or punishment for another’s wrongdoing, or public outrage against an individual or group for the same reason.
After the BP Oil Spill; many Americans would like to see Tony Hayward’s head on a stick, myself included.

Ever since putting someone’s head on a stick ceased to be a routine form of public punishment—indeed, the last instance of it we can think of is fictional (Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, though it references an actual event from the French Revolution)—calling for someone’s head has been a fairly conventional way to express one’s outrage or criticism. Two months ago, for example, right-wing blogger Glenn Reynolds voiced his anger over the State Department’s lax provision of security in Benghazi by demanding, “Can we see some heads roll?”
Yet that very same Glenn Reynolds is now accusing Loomis of using “eliminationist rhetoric.”

Other conservative voices have joined in. The Daily Caller says Loomis “unleashed a flurry of profanity-ridden tweets demanding death for National Rifle Association executive Wayne LaPierre.” Townhall put Loomis’s tweets in the context of NRA members and leaders getting death threats. And just this morning, Michelle Malkin wrote at National Review Online:

What’s most disturbing is that the incitements are coming from purportedly respectable, prominent, and influential public figures.
Consider the rhetoric of University of Rhode Island professor Erik Loomis….

Unfortunately, Loomis is not alone….

So, it’s come to this: Advocating beheadings, beatings, and the mass murder of peaceful Americans to pay for the sins of a soulless madman. But because the advocates of violence fashion themselves champions of nonviolence and because they inhabit the hallowed worlds of Hollywood, academia, and the Democratic party, it’s acceptable?

Blood-lusting hate speech must not get a pass just because it comes out of the mouths of the protected anti-gun class.

This campaign has now brought Loomis into the crosshairs of the state and his employer.
Loomis has already been questioned by the Rhode Island State Police, who told him that someone had informed the FBI that Loomis had threatened LaPierre’s life. Loomis also has been hauled into a meeting with his dean. And now the president of the University of Rhode Island, where Loomis teaches, has issued the following statement:

The University of Rhode Island does not condone acts or threats of violence. These remarks do not reflect the views of the institution and Erik Loomis does not speak on behalf of the University. The University is committed to fostering a safe, inclusive and equitable culture that aspires to promote positive change.
We do not expect any better of the orchestrators of this campaign—this is what they have done for many years, and doubtless will be doing for years to come. We do expect better of university administrators. Rather than standing behind a member of their faculty, the administration has sought to distance the university from Loomis.

Even to suggest that Loomis’s tweet constitutes a “threat of violence” is an offense against the English language. We are dismayed that the university president completely fails to acknowledge the importance of academic freedom and of scholars’ freedom independently to express views (even intemperate ones) on topics of public importance. This statement—unless it is swiftly corrected— should give alarm to scholars at the University of Rhode Island, to scholars who might one day consider associating themselves with this institution, and to academic and professional associations that value academic freedom.

However, this is not merely a question of academic freedom. It also speaks to a broader set of rights to speak freely without the fear of being fired for controversial views that many of us have been flagging for years. Everyone should be clear what is going on. As a blogger at Atrios has pointed out, what the witch hunters want is for Loomis to be fired. Indeed, the calls have already begun. Though Loomis has a union, his lack of tenure makes him vulnerable.

We insist that the University of Rhode Island take a strong stand for the values of academic freedom and freedom of speech, that it not be intimidated by an artificially whipped-up media frenzy, that it affirm that the protections of the First Amendment require our collective enforcement, and that all employers—particularly, in this kind of case, university employers—have a special obligation to see that freedom of speech become a reality of everyday life.

We urge all of you to contact the following three administrators at the University of Rhode Island:

Dean Winnie Brownell:
Provost Donald DeHays:
President David Dooley:

Be polite, be civil, be firm.
We also call upon all academic and other bloggers to stand in support of Loomis. We invite others who wish to associate themselves with this statement to say so in the comments section to this post, and to republish this statement elsewhere.

Chris Bertram, University of Bristol                                                 Harry Brighouse, University of Wisconsin – Madison

Michael Bérubé, The Pennsylvania State University                    Daniel Davies, non-academic

Henry Farrell, George Washington University                              Kieran Healy, Duke University

John Holbo, National University of Singapore                             Jon Mandle, SUNY Albany

John Quiggin, University of Queensland                                      Eric Rauchway, University of California Davis

Corey Robin, Brooklyn College                                                       Brian Weatherson, University of Michigan

In reply to the online audience that responded to the statement, the University released the following statement on December 23, 2012.

Over the past several days we have heard from many individuals concerning statements made or repeated by Professor Erik Loomis. Many writers forcefully expressed serious concern about his statements and many others expressed very strong support for Professor Loomis, especially in regard to his First Amendment right to share his personal opinions. In the statements at issue, Professor Loomis did not make it clear that he was speaking solely as an individual, and that the views he expressed were his alone and did not reflect the views of the University of Rhode Island. This was the rationale for our original statement.

The University of Rhode Island strongly believes that constitutionally protected rights to free expression are the foundation of American democracy, and central to our mission of imparting knowledge and promoting the exchange of ideas. It is our conviction that Professor Loomis’s personal remarks, however intemperate and inflammatory they may be, are protected by the First Amendment, as are the views of those who have contacted us in recent days.
David M. Dooley, Ph.D.
University of Rhode Island

  From now on any academic that has made intemperate comments on social media such as blogging or tweeting will have to have a disclaimer stating that the comments are the sole opinion of the commentator and do not reflect the views of his/her employer.

  A second event that happened in December of 2012 involves the deactivation of an academic’s facebook account on the alleged orders of the Department of Homeland Security.

“Peter Dale Scott, professor emeritus at UC Berkeley and one of the most esteemed researchers of the murky JFK assassination and CIA involvement in cocaine trafficking, recently had his Facebook account inactivated, along with a eighteen other activists who either challenged current US gun control initiatives or the the official version of events at Sandy Hook Elementary School.”

 Do two concurrent events indicate a pattern of suppression or is this just a coincidence? You be the judge.



  1. We recently got news that our administration was trying to introduce some vague and underhanded changes into our social media policy. It seems like the changes they want to introduce can be used to castigate any academic who says anything on the social media (even anonymously!) that might "have a negative impact on the university's public image." Obviously, this very vague formulation leaves a lot of room for a number of extremely negative and detrimental practices.

    I've been waiting to hear more details about this before I posted anything about this on my blog because for now it is not clear whether this is going to be advanced, whose idea it is, and why this is happening. Of course, my colleagues are ready for a fight if the administration insists on it.

    So as you can see, the tendency is definitely there.

  2. The government has been scared of Scott since forever and he is totally on their radar, so I am not surprised. The Loomis thing worries me a lot more.