Sensitive Material and Classroom Discussion
January 8, 2013
A recent article in the Sun-Sentinel of South Florida deals with the controversy surrounding a professor at Florida Atlantic University, James Tracy, who teaches a class on conspiracy theories. Professor Tracy made some waves recently when he suggested on a private, non-university blog that the December shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut did not happen in the way that has been described by media and government officials.
As one can imagine, this has led to questions from media and the public, to which FAU has wisely responded that Tracy is not speaking for the university (it is indeed obvious from the blog entries that he is speaking for himself) and that the blog is not affiliated with the university (also obvious). Professor Tracy certainly has the right to speak his mind on topics of public concern, and given that he teaches a class called "Culture of Conspiracy," discussing such conspiracy theories would seem to be germane to the topic of his class as well.
In the article, I was quoted thusly:
Robert Shibley, an official with the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said Tracy is well within his rights of free speech, especially when teaching a course on conspiracy theory.
"The only way that a university would have a right to tone it down, or insist he stop talking about it, is if students come to him and say they find it disturbing," said Shibley. "People are allowed to talk about things that are upsetting — for example, abortion."
If you think the middle part of that excerpt seems to conflict with the first and last part, I agree. The reporter and I had a wide-ranging conversation, and unfortunately I think part of this quote is either a little bit off or at least missing some context that is important to understand.
I explained to the reporter that I thought the university could ask the professor to back off of in-class contentions about the facts of the massacre if, for example, a student came to the professor, explained that he or she had a relative affected by it, and told him that he or she found the professor's contentions extremely disturbing. I actually do not believe that a public university can or should require the professor to stop discussing his views in a relevant class, even for that reason. But a discussion with a professor about the sensitivity of his or her student in that limited circumstance would pose little threat to academic freedom generally, particularly given how recently the events occurred and the fact that it (in this theoretical scenario) involved the death of a family member. (Please note that this is all purely hypothetical; there has been no suggestion that Tracy has done anything of the sort.)
As we explain in FIRE's Guide to Free Speech on Campus:
[W]hen it comes to determining the parameters of a professor‘s right to academic freedom, context matters. The standard of what language is "germane" to the classroom will always remain a matter of contention and must be decided on a case-by-case basis.... [T]he principles of academic freedom serve to emphasize the particular importance of giving broad free speech rights to the academic environment.
I hope that for anyone confused, this will help to explain the apparent contradiction between that sentence and the other things I am cited as saying in the article—and with what FIRE says on a consistent basis, day in and day out.