Purdue-Calumet Investigates Professor's Speech for Months, Chilling Expression
February 20, 2012
by Adam Kissel
Purdue University Calumet (PUC) has been investigating a professor for months due to what looks like an organized onslaught of complaints about his expression on Facebook and in class about Muslims, even though some of the complainants never took his class and many have left unspecified what speech, exactly, they were complaining about. Professor Maurice Eisenstein has been under investigation since the complaints were filed in mid-November 2011, more than three months ago.
FIRE wrote PUC Chancellor Thomas L. Keon on January 24, 2012, about the investigation:
The principle of freedom of speech does not exist to protect only non-controversial speech; indeed, it exists precisely to protect speech that some members of a community may find controversial or offensive. The right to free speech includes the right to say things that are deeply offensive to many people, and the United States Supreme Court has explicitly held, in rulings spanning decades, that speech cannot be restricted simply because it offends people. In Papish v. Board of Curators of the University of Missouri, 410 U.S. 667, 670 (1973), the Court held that "the mere dissemination of ideas—no matter how offensive to good taste—on a state university campus may not be shut off in the name alone of ‘conventions of decency.'" In Terminiello v. Chicago, 337 U.S. 1, 4 (1949), the Court held that "a function of free speech under our system of government is to invite dispute. It may indeed best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger." In Texas v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397, 414 (1989), the Court explained the rationale behind these decisions well, saying that "[i]f there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable."
In a milieu as diverse as the modern academy, offense is virtually unavoidable. Free speech needs breathing room in order to thrive. The principles of academic freedom and free expression in the university setting mandate far more tolerance than has been afforded Eisenstein.
FIRE received a response from Chancellor Keon on February 14, declining to discuss the matter.
It is bad enough that personal Facebook conversations—which readers may choose to simply ignore—are a major part of the investigation, but the fact that this investigation drags on month after month like a sword of Damocles hanging above Professor Eisenstein's head can only have a chilling effect on speech at PUC. I look forward to seeing the investigator's full report so that we can finally see whether PUC is meeting its legal and moral obligations to protect freedom of expression.