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Supreme Court of the United States

Crying Wolf Over Faculty Speech

October 17, 2017

Both Inside Higher Ed and Minding the Campus highlight the latest example of academia serving as a network of leftist think tanks.  The “Cry Wolf Project”—organized by “prominent liberal academics”—is trying to rally faculty and graduate students to do “battle with conservative ideas.”  That is, the organizers will pay $1,000 for essays supposedly showing how conservatives “cry wolf” by exaggerating the consequences of leftist public policy proposals.  K.C. Johnson at Minding the Campus notes the organizer’s almost comically inflated sense of self importance and skewed definition of “scholarship.”  But this project illustrates a more disturbing divide between faculty who can speak freely and those who cannot.

Doubtlessly, plenty of faculty members will jump at the opportunity to write what are essentially opinion columns designed to “construct a counter narrative” impugning conservatives.  After all, the organizers are targeting the social sciences, where leftists outnumber conservatives by eight or nine to one (if not more).  Faculty get to use their “research skills,” list another publication on their resume, and perform the vital public service of undermining those who seek to “thwart progressive reform.”  As an added bonus, they get paid fifty cents a word and get their names in front of faculty from schools such as Harvard, Yale, and MIT.  All in all, it is a quick, easy, and financially rewarding way to polish up that next promotion application. 

However, the story is much different for faculty on the conservative end of the political spectrum.  For example, Dr. Mike Adams is a criminology professor at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington.  When he applied for promotion, he had published more peer-reviewed scholarly articles than all but two of his colleagues, had consistently high evaluations from his students, and had earned several teaching awards.  He also mentioned the column he writes on the side, covering a wide expanse of cultural issues but frequently highlighting abuses within higher education.  Because of his column, he lost the promotion, as his colleagues described his writings as “excessively puerile self-indulgence” that “generally detracted from the scholarship of the department.”  Apparently, when it comes to academia, all viewpoints are not created equal.

Or consider Scott Savage, whose story David Hacker recently highlighted.  As a librarian, he simply recommended a book for freshmen to read.  And this prompted sexual harassment charges and a vicious campaign of intimidation and harassment that forced him ultimately to resign.  Again, some viewpoints are more equal than others.

Sadly, the double standard extends beyond the faculty lounge.  For example, though the verdict was later reversed, Ward Churchill’s jury found that his university wrongly fired him for expressing views—odious and reprehensible ones, to be sure—that the First Amendment protects.  And Churchill is a professor with a fake ethnicity, no earned doctorate, and plagiarized articles.  Yet Dr. Adams’ and Mr. Savage’s cases never even reached a jury because the judges ruled that the First Amendment did not protect their speech.  For Dr. Adams, merely referencing his column on his application transformed it into part of his “official job duties,” stripping it of all First Amendment protection.  For Mr. Savage, because recommending a book did not qualify as “teaching” or “scholarship,” it also did not qualify as free speech. 

Media Matters describes the “Cry Wolf Project” as a “yawner,” arguing that lots of professors dabble in politics.  But when they advance leftist causes, they are rewarded and promoted.  And if they are challenged, the higher education world rises to their defense (as it did for Churchill), championing them as First Amendment heroes.  If they dabble in conservative causes, they are vilified and subjected to false but potentially career-ending misconduct charges.  And after they are told that the First Amendment does not protect them, leading higher education publications pile on, mischaracterizing the facts and the ruling.  Perhaps there is a slight imbalance here, but we must be careful lest we be charged with “crying wolf.”

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