Virginia Tech Supports the Troops and the First Amendment at the Same Time
September 6, 2013
My favorite bumper sticker is an American flag with the caption: “Think. It’s patriotic.” That’s essentially what Steven Salaita, a professor of English at Virginia Tech, was trying to say when he posted commentary on Salon arguing against uncritical support of the military. But he chose to do so in a deliberately provocative way, framing his essay as an explanation for why he declined to donate his change (18 cents) from a convenience store purchase “to support the troops.” The result, according to The Washington Post, was a “backlash” against him that has grown from “outrage on social media into calls for Salaita’s firing, his deportation and death[.]” Luckily, none of the threats of violence have materialized.
Professor Salaita believes it’s his job to come up with ideas to make people think. This incident is yet another frustrating example of an important discussion—whether we as a nation are supporting our troops in a meaningful way—disintegrating into name-calling and threats because the author dared to voice some views that some might find offensive.
But there is a silver lining: namely, Virginia Tech’s response to the controversy. The school issued a statement that is not what FIRE would have written, but it gets the job done. The statement devotes five of its six paragraphs to defending Virginia Tech’s bona fides as an institution that supports the military, and disassociates itself from Salaita’s views, but it also says this:
However much we may disagree with associate professor Salaita’s opinions, we also recognize one of this nation’s most cherished liberties ensconced in the [F]irst [A]mendment to our nation’s [C]onstitution and embedded in the principle of academic freedom. He has a right to his opinions just as others have a right to disagree.
This is an improvement over the reaction of some other schools when dealing with an outspoken professor. For instance, when Professor Erik Loomis called for NRA President Wayne LaPierre’s “head on a stick” in a tweet, the University of Rhode Island (URI) issued a statement (PDF) condemning violence and distancing itself from Loomis. Only after FIRE wrote a letter reminding URI of its obligation to uphold the right to free expression did the president of URI issue a second statement acknowledging that “rights to free expression are the foundation of American democracy, and central to our mission of imparting knowledge and promoting the exchange of ideas.”
More importantly, Salaita told The Roanoke Times: “My dean has informed me in very clear terms that the university will protect academic freedom.” So thanks to Virginia Tech and Salaita’s dean for respecting the First Amendment and, we hope, reducing FIRE’s potential caseload by one.