Imagine this: You’re a tenured university professor, whose ground-breaking work has earned you a sterling reputation around the world. You’re well-read, intelligent, earnest, you even recycle and wear sustainable clothing. You think seriously about the issues that face your field, your school, and the world in general. You’re fortunate enough to be employed by one of the best public universities in the United States.
The administration starts making decisions you disagree with, and you speak your mind — the mind you were hired for — at faculty governance meetings. Suddenly you’re denied a due raise and given more work. Since you’re tenured, you can’t get fired — but it sure feels like you’re not wanted anymore.
This is what happened to Dr. Juan Hong, a full professor of chemical engineering who recently sued the University of California at Irvine and lost.
The presiding judge claimed that because Dr. Hong was purportedly acting “pursuant to his official duties,” which included participation in faculty governance, he could not avail himself of First Amendment protection if his employer retaliated against him based on his expression of opposition to the university’s policy. According to the court, the University of California-Irvine “‘commissioned’ Mr. Hong’s involvement in the peer review process and his participation is therefore part of his official duties as a faculty member. The University is free to regulate statement made in the course of that process without judicial interference.”
The case resurrected a similar one from 2006 Garcetti v. Ceballos, in which Robert Cellabos, a Los Angeles deputy district attorney, challenged a verdict his office made in a case. For his “insubordinance” Ceballos was reassigned to a new position, transferred to a different courthouse, and denied a promotion. He sued the DA’s office and lost, for the same reason that Dr. Hong did: freedom of speech does not apply to government officials acting in an official capacity as it does private citizens.
There’s just one thing: Academics are supposed to be granted different rights than government employees. The Garcetti decision even set aside a clause for academic contexts, which should have protected Dr. Hong.
Of course, this isn’t the first time an academic has gotten in trouble for speaking his or her mind. The most famous case in recent years, of course, was in 2005, when Ward Churchill lost his job at the University of Colorado at Boulder for an essay he wrote on 9/11 in which he referred to those who worked in the World Trade Center as “little Eichmanns” — a controversial allusion to Adolf Eichmann, the so-called “architect of the Holocaust.” His argument was simply that those who worked towers were the “technocratic corps at the very heart of America’s global financial empire.” Thus, they were complicit in the system that al Qaeda meant to shatter.
While invoking the Holocaust might have been unwise, the outcome was still shocking. Churchill was quickly vilified by the media and he lost his job. And though the Hong case is of a different stripe, the implication is the same: if academics are prevented from speaking freely for fear of losing their jobs or other professional opportunities, what will become of our colleges and universities? How can people educate others if they are in constant fear over what they can and cannot say?
The Hong case is pending.