Professor’s Facebook comments about Muslims brings campus outcry, lawsuit
May 18, 2012
Purdue faculty member had lengthy Facebook exchange with a student who was offended by the Facebook rant
A Purdue University Calumet (PUC) professor who was reprimanded for a series of Facebook comments critical of Muslims, drawing harsh criticism from students and faculty members, has filed a free-speech lawsuit against the university.
Maurice Eisenstein, an associate professor of political science at PUC, posted a picture of Facebook last November of "Christians killed by a radical Muslim group." Eisenstein criticized "moderate Muslims" for failing to condemn the alleged attack.
He added that Muslims are "still looking at the earth as flat according to the idiot Mohammad [sic], may his name be cursed." Eisenstein was accused of engaging in a heated exchange with a PUC student on Facebook.
Shortly after the photo was posted to Eisenstein's personal Facebook account, the PUC Muslim Student Association, faculty members, and students filed nine complaints against the professor. All of those formal complaints were dismissed after a two-month investigation by university administrators.
PUC Chancellor Thomas Keon found Eisenstein guilty of two incidents described as "retaliation" against people who had filed the formal complaints after his Facebook rant. In one of those retaliatory incidents, Eisenstein allegedly said to a complainant, "Now I know why your son committed suicide."
Eisenstein, who appealed the retaliation charges, denied saying this. He filed the free-speech lawsuit May 10.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a free-speech advocacy group, sent a series of letters to Keon during the school's investigation, defending the professor's right to express political opinions-no matter how polarizing-on Facebook.
"Eisenstein's colleagues ganged up on him to punish him for his protected expression," said Adam Kissel, FIRE's president of programs. "The best remedy for ‘bad' speech is more speech, not this pattern of wild prosecution."
The student and faculty complaints about Eisenstein's Facebook activity, Kissel said, weren't warranted because the professor didn't target a student or fellow faculty member with his scathing criticism of Muslims.
"A single off-campus comment on a personal Facebook page, directed at no one in particular, and on a matter of opinion about current events, does not come within a light-year of harassment of a student," he said. The university was unavailable for comment.
FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said Eisenstein's predicament should serve as a cautionary tale for colleges and universities that receive complaints about an employees' postings on social media sites.
"This is not the first time, and it won't be the last time, we will see a university punish a student or professor for constitutionally protected speech on Facebook," he said. "Professors at public universities should not have to go to court to defend their free-speech rights."
Kissel said educators' opinions should be just as thoroughly protected on Facebook as they would be in an op-ed in the student newspaper. Scrutinizing professors' Facebook posts for potentially offensive material, he said, could set a precedent on college campuses.
"The real danger is in the rise of threat assessment models that imagine potential threats in totally innocuous online comments," he said. "Who wants their tweets put in a threat assessment database? It is easier to play it safe and never show any emotion online."
Eisenstein is the latest to draw disciplinary action from higher-education officials after posting controversial comments to the world's most popular social network.
Matthew Werenczak, a graduate student in Syracuse's School of Education, was a student teacher at a local middle school in July when he heard a representative from the Concerned Citizens Action Program (CCAP) say that the school should hire student teachers from historically black colleges, not Syracuse.
Werenczak complained on his own Facebook page about the representative's comment, and was later called to a meeting with Syracuse administrators to discuss the social media exchange.
No action was taken at the time, but in September, Werenczak received a letter saying he would be expelled from the school unless he took anger-management counseling, completed diversity training, and wrote a paper on his growth "regarding cultural diversity."
Syracuse readmitted Werenczak a day after FIRE filed a complaint.