Professors Have Freedom of Speech

We all know that American colleges and universities are bastions of intellectual freedom. They’re places where scholars can pursue truth without having to fear the consequences of getting powerful people ticked off. And they’re deeply committed to fair treatment for all individuals.

Right? Well, not always. A recent case shows that college administrators can be astoundingly intolerant and high-handed with those who get on their bad side.

Back on August 5, East Georgia College held a training seminar for faculty members on the school’s sexual harassment policy. You might think that it would have sufficed to email the policy around, along with a bullet-point memo saying: HERE ARE TEN THINGS NOT TO DO. If you think that, you don’t know the ways of college administrators, for whom time-consuming meetings and programs are essential.

At one point, Professor Thomas Thibeault, who has been on the East Georgia faculty for five years, teaching literature and composition, posed a scenario involving a false accusation of harassment against a faculty member and then asked if the school’s policy had any provision to protect against malicious charges. He was told by vice president for legal affairs Mary Smith, who was in charge of the session, that the policy had nothing in it to protect the accused.

Not realizing that he was already on thin ice, Thibeault then commented that the policy was “flawed.”

On the morning of August 7, Thibeault was ordered to report to college president John Black’s office. Black wasted no time. He told Thibeault that he “was a divisive force in the college at a time when the college needed unity.” Then he let the ax fall. Thibeault was told that he could either resign by 11:30 A.M. or else he’d be fired. And if the school had to fire him, Black said, it would make public his “long history of sexual harassment.”

Black went on to tell the dumbfounded professor that he would be immediately escorted off campus by the head of campus police and that he would be arrested for trespassing if he tried to return.

Thibeault did not tender his resignation by 11:30 that morning, or at any time since. Black then wrote to him on August 11, informing him that since he had not obeyed his command to take cyanide (oops—that was Hitler’s command to General Rommel; I mean his order to resign), the school had begun dismissal proceedings. Oddly, though, Black went on to say that a faculty committee had been appointed “to advise me whether or not dismissal proceedings shall be undertaken.”

On August 25, Thibeault received another letter from Black. That letter informed him that the faculty committee had found “sufficient evidence to support your suspension.” Suspension? That was the first time that word had been used. But the suspension was changed back to firing when Black wrote that Thibeault was going to be terminated for sexual harassment and telling him that he could request the written charges and a hearing if he wanted to. Thibeault did make that request on August 28, but so far has received no response from Black.

Fortunately, Professor Thibeault heard about the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and brought his situation to its attention. FIRE has highlighted this extraordinary, Kafkaesque case on its site. FIRE’s Adam Kissel, director of its Individual Rights Defense Program, sent a letter to the Chancellor of the University System of Georgia on August 27 setting forth the facts of Professor Thibeault’s case and making it clear that Black’s treatment of him violated his First Amendment rights and his rights to due process of law.

That letter requested a response by September 3, but so far neither the East Georgia College administration nor the chancellor has deigned to respond.

Maybe they are unaware that FIRE has an excellent record in court against administrators who violate the rights of students and faculty members. This case would probably be like shooting fish in a barrel for FIRE’s affiliated attorneys.

At this point, it’s a matter of speculation exactly what transpired after the training session, but I am going to hazard a guess. Angered that Thibeault had the temerity to criticize her policy, Mary Smith went to president Black and demanded his head—so to speak. Thinking it would be easier to get rid of Thibeault than to deal with her anger, Black hastily decided to try intimidating him into quietly going away. That didn’t work and now Black is caught in his own web.

A real investigation is needed to uncover the truth about this ugly incident. Did the professor really have a “history of sexual harassment” (and if so, why did the school tolerate it for so long?) or was that claim fabricated? Why did Black act so viciously right after the training session, disregarding the procedures that both custom and the school’s faculty handbook call for?

What this case appears to show is that a professor can land in deep trouble merely for criticizing a “sacred cow” policy. That’s not a good example of higher education’s supposed commitment to open inquiry and free exchange of ideas.