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What We’re Reading, April 2021 Edition

Today, free expression concerns are commonly identified with conservatives and right-leaning views, but our readings this month include a Yale School of Medicine professor claiming that she was fired for criticizing supporters of former President Donald Trump and a basketball coach who resigned following blowback from state legislators after his team kneeled for the national anthem. Our op-eds and thought pieces include a piece by a professor calling on fellow liberals to reclaim the defense of free speech and an article about new free-speech organizations with pluralistic viewpoints.

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Campus Happenings

Former Professor Says Yale Fired Her Over Tweet on Trump, Dershowitz
Madison Hahamy and Beatriz Horta | Yale Daily News | March 23, 2021

Former Yale School of Medicine professor Brandy Lee is suing the university for wrongful termination. “Lee’s complaint alleges that Yale fired her in response to a January 2020 tweet that characterized ‘just about all’ of former president Donald Trump’s supporters as suffering from ‘shared psychosis’ and said that Alan Dershowitz, a lawyer on Trump’s legal team, had ‘wholly taken on Trump’s symptoms by contagion.’ Dershowitz responded to the tweet with a letter to Yale administrators, in which he complained that Lee’s tweet constituted ‘a serious violation of the ethics rules of the American Psychiatric Association’ and requested that she be disciplined.’” Lee asserts that her statements were protected by the First Amendment and Yale’s guarantees of academic freedom.

Another Win for Christian Student Group at University of Iowa
Elizabeth Redden | Inside Higher Ed | March 23, 2021

In a legal victory for University of Iowa student association Business Leaders in Christ, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eight Circuit found that school administrators can be held personally liable for discriminating against the group when it revoked their status as an official campus organization. The ruling stems from a 2017 lawsuit in which Business Leaders in Christ sued the university, and won (twice) in district court, after school officials derecognized the religious group because their rules denied leadership roles to sexually active gay students.

Meriwether v. Hartop et al.
United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit | March 26, 2021

The Sixth Circuit has ruled that Professor Nicholas Meriwether can proceed with a First Amendment lawsuit against his employer, Shawnee State University. The court found that “Meriwether has plausibly alleged that Shawnee State burdened his free-exercise rights” after the school disciplined him for creating a “hostile environment” when he refused to call a transgender student by preferred pronouns. Meriwether instead referred to the transgender student by surname and to the other students using “Mr.” or “Ms.”

Protesters Rally in Support of Former Coach Shay, ETSU Basketball Players
Slater Teague, Kaylyn Kluck, Anslee Daniel | WJHL 11 News | April 6, 2021

At East Tennessee State University, students and community members gathered to support Jason Shay, who resigned as head coach of the ETSU men’s basketball team amid backlash after the team kneeled during the national anthem in protest of racial injustice. The move provoked harsh words from state lawmakers, including a letter from state Senate Republicans demanding university presidents in Tennessee ban student-athletes from kneeling.

State and Federal Policies

Utah House Bill 159: Higher Education Speech
64th Utah State Legislature | March 16, 2021

The law instructs college and universities to align their anti-harassment policies with the First Amendment and prohibits speech that is so severe as to deny a student access to university resources or opportunities. The attorney general is permitted to intervene to enforce the act, which also mandates that universities publish a free expression policy in media and during freshman orientations. Gov. Spencer Cox (R-UT) signed the legislation into law on March 16, 2021.

Florida Legislature Committee Substitute 233
2021 Florida State Legislature | April 7, 2021

The legislation contains multiple provisions related to campus free expression, including a mandate that the state’s two public higher education systems annually survey students, faculty, and staff to gauge viewpoint diversity and freedom of expression on campuses (critics have raised privacy concerns about the surveys, while others believe the surveys may provide useful information); a requirement to create an appeals processes for student government officials who have been “disciplined, suspended, or removed from office”; and authorizing students to record classes without a professor’s consent for “personal educational use, in connection with a complaint to the public institution of higher education where the recording was made, or as evidence in, or in preparation for, a criminal or civil proceeding.” Both houses have passed the bill, which now heads to the desk of Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL).

Op-eds and Thought Pieces

Fighting Back, At Last
Jonathan Rauch | Persuasion | March 29, 2021

The author details the emergence of a “daisy-chain of free-speech startups” noteworthy for their pluralistic viewpoints and their “grassroots origins, their decentralized, networked structure, and their diversity of targets and strategies…The groups see the primary threat to free thought and liberal values not in old-fashioned government censorship, but in new forms of cultural coercion and institutional corruption. Those must be fought with public advocacy and pressure campaigns—and, above all, solidarity.” “How much will all this activity matter? Possibly a lot. Networked activism can have game-changing political impact, sometimes in months, not decades.”

A Professor Pushed Back Against “White Fragility” Training. The College Investigated Her for Nine Months
Jesse Singal | Reason | April 5, 2021

The article details a public university’s investigation and discipling of a professor who raised objections during a required diversity training program; her objections focused in part on the division of program participants “into white and non-white ‘caucuses.’” The professor was criticized by name in a campus-wide email from the university president, her teaching responsibilities were suspended during a nine-month investigation, and she received a written reprimand. The author concludes: “In parts of academia and media, it appears to be increasingly common for left-leaning people to make inflated claims of harm when they are exposed within their community to opinions that might rate as blandly center-right or even center-left in a broader context… It would be nice to imagine that what’s going on at LWTech is restricted to one cartoonishly out-of-control college administration. But that’s just not true.”

When Will Liberals Reclaim Free Speech?
Jonathan Zimmerman | Wall Street Journal | April 7, 2021

“I’m a liberal and a Democrat: I’m pro-choice, pro-ObamaCare and vehemently anti-Trump. But I’m also a strong supporter of free speech, which marks me as a right-winger on campus. That’s because my fellow liberals have largely abandoned free speech to conservatives. … I get it. You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the free-speech winds are blowing these days. It’s prudent to keep your big mouth shut. But that’s anathema to a liberal university, which requires debating differences fully and openly. It’s also hardly clear that this censorship will help the minorities it purports to protect.” Zimmerman’s book, Free Speech and Why You Should Give a Damn, was published this month.

How to Defend Free Speech
Tevi Troy | National Affairs | Spring 2021

“Though it has no single point of origin, the current wave of [campus] censorship can be traced roughly to 2014. …The last time it arose—in the late 1980s and early 1990s—the conservative movement rallied Americans to successfully counter the first wave of campus-born censorship before it took hold among the public. Examining how these defenders of free speech prevailed can give us valuable insight into how we might build the case for free expression today.” One lesson “relates to the need to build alliances across the aisle. Arguments from right-leaning writers … could have only gone so far without allies from the left making common cause in defense of free speech.”

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