Professors fear erosion of the freedom of speech

Published: Sunday, Nov. 15, 2009 10:37 p.m. MST
PROVO — The First Amendment is designed to protect you when you speak, but what if it didn't anymore?

That's the concern of the American Association of University Professors, which issued a report last week, "Speak Up, Speak Out: Protect the Faculty Voice," an in-depth look at a Supreme Court decision that has permanently changed the way public employees speak and could potentially affect university professors in the same damaging ways.

"Real education is impossible without academic freedom for faculty and students," said Utah Valley University philosophy professor Scott Abbott, chairman of the university's AAUP chapter. "It's all interwoven. If you start restraining academic freedom in one area, it would trickle down. I could imagine a whole culture where people are afraid to say what they think."

The potential fear comes from the 2006 Supreme Court decision in the case Garcetti v. Ceballos.

Richard Ceballos was a deputy Los Angeles district attorney who claimed he had been denied a promotion because he challenged his superiors on the validity of a search warrant.he high court upheld the district court's ruling that Ceballos' First Amendment rights had not been violated because they said he commented as a public employee, not a private citizen.

That means if a public employee speaks out against his employer and gets fired or demoted, he or she may not have legal recourse under the First Amendment.

The high court's ruling didn't specifically address professors as public employees, but since then, several lower courts have applied the ruling to the academic world, siding against professors who claimed they were punished for speaking out.

The ruling makes sense for a district attorney's office, where employees speaking out against superiors could damage the goals of the office, said Christopher Peterson, University of Utah law professor and the college of law's associate dean for academic affairs.

However, at a research university, the primary obligation is to speak up about new ideas, which can often be provocative and controversial, Peterson said.

"So for university professors, when we see currents in society that might tend to undermine our ability to have free exchange and intellectual discussion, that's very troubling," Peterson said.

Abbott said he believes there is a healthy academic environment in Utah, but he and the AAUP are still worried about the potential ramifications of the ruling.

BYU professors said they have no concerns about the ruling, as it doesn't affect private colleges, said Jim Gordon, BYU law professor and former associate academic vice president for faculty

Gordon added that academic freedom at BYU is already protected by BYU's academic-freedom policy, which has been approved by BYU's regional accrediting body.

Although those academic-freedom policies may differ between private and public institutions, the AAUP has no problems with religious schools like BYU or Notre Dame requiring different standards for their professors, O'Neil said.

The organization only requires that such standards be clear and consistently imposed, with due process given to all employees who violate them.

BYU has been on the AAUP's censure list since 1998 for its perceived lack of academic freedom in how it handled the dismissal of several faculty members for controversial comments.

The school is not rushing to get off that list.

"Our concern is continuing to provide the best quality education we can to our students," said BYU spokesman Michael Smart.

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    But Abbott — who left BYU in 1998 after being denied full-professor status due to comments offensive to the administration — said he's proud of the gumption shown by UVU, then UVSC, to uphold its 2004 campus invitation to controversial filmmaker Michael Moore, despite significant backlash.

    "There was open discussion and heated debate," he said. "And there were shouts and boos. All of that is a positive thing for a university. We're better off if there's open and lively debate of issues."


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