A Different Take on the URI Statement 2.0

by on 2012-12-25 in Duck- 1 Comment

Kindred Winecoff disagrees that this was a modest victory:

I must completely disagree with his (“modest”) level of satisfaction. This represents no victory at all because this new statement from URI officials, like the first one, completely misses the point. This is not about First Amendment rights. Nobody was saying that Loomis should be thrown into the deepest darkest dungeon never to be heard from again. They were saying that he should be fired or otherwise professionally damaged for an emotional — and politically motivated — response to a mass killing.

The relevant standard here is academic freedom, not First Amendment rights. The University of Rhode Island subscribes to the 1940 “Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure” issued by the American Association of University Professors. This Statement indicates that Loomis deserves the full support of the University of Rhode Island even if he was speaking under the banner of the University. (Which he always is, implicitly, contra the views of the CT commenters.) Instead of espousing that principle, which is fundamental to the mission of public universities, the University has repudiated it by saying that Loomis deserves no greater protection than those who have written to the University on this matter, whether in solidarity with or opposition to Loomis.

I don’t strongly disagree with Kindred that the “First Amendment” frame misses a great deal. Indeed, the first draft of my post included a much longer “on the one hand” that criticized Dr. Dooley and his office for focusing so much on Erik’s constitutional right to free speech. I deleted those lines for a few reasons.

First, as URI is a public institution the issue of first-amendment rights does seem somewhat relevant.

Second, the AAUP’s statement on academic freedom is a bit less clear-cut than Kindred suggests. Loomis’ comments on the NRA are pretty distant from his academic work. The nature of the activity in question would seem to fall under the third clause of the AAUP’s statement, which focuses on the rights of academics as citizens to engage in the public arena. It also reads that academics have a special responsibility not to be, more or less, intemperate. In that sense, the URI statement might be suboptimal, but it is reasonable.

Third, even if we accept Kindred’s position arguendo then I still believe that the second URI statement constitutes a “modest victory.” Why? Because the three biggest flaws in the first statement were (a) the insinuation that Erik was advocating or engaging in violent acts, (b) the disrespect of Erik’s position and credentials, and (c) the fact that the administration refused to back a professor currently receiving actual death threats and other forms of harassment for incontrovertibly fallacious reasons.  Version 2.0 tacitly admits that they screwed up with respect to (a), corrects (b), and, whatever the justification, defends Erik’s right to speak his mind–and therefore moves in the right direction on (c).

Given all these factors, I felt it important to note some of the more straightforward limitations of URI’s second statement and then, in effect, call it a day. The next step is to monitor URI closely around the time of Erik’s tenure decision. If he’s denied tenure, but has a strong prima facie case for meeting URI’s standards, then it will be time to mobilize again.



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  • http://twitter.com/whinecough W. K. Winecoff

    Hey Dan, thanks for the response.

    I agree that the AAUP Statement isn’t 100% clear-cut, and said so yesterday on Twitter in an exchange with Eric Rauchway. (You were CCed on it.) The actual language is that professors have a responsibility in their role as citizens to “exercise appropriate restraint”. I don’t think in this case getting into the weeds of whether Loomis’ tweet violates that proviso or not is going to be productive, except to note that if it does then a whole lotta university professors are now subject to sanction at the university level for strongly expressing a range of opinions on any number of topics. To take a recent example, Brian Rathbun’s recent “F*&k Freedom” post could leave him open to censure. I know I’d be susceptible as well.

    In either case, there is a difference between individual and institutional responsibilities. URI has a responsibility to protect and defend its faculty, at least by saying in no uncertain terms that their status at the university will not be affected by the expression of unpopular ideas. Instead, URI first disowned Loomis and then, under pressure, asserted what was never in doubt: that Loomis has a First Amendment right to speech. Even in the second statement they distanced themselves from him, under the ground that Loomis wasn’t speaking for the university. So I don’t think they walked back nearly enough, tacitly or otherwise. And while it’s nice that they added the “Professor” in front of his name this time, I think that’s too little to celebrate.

    I agree with your conclusion:

    “The next step is to monitor URI closely around the time of Erik’s tenure decision. If he’s denied tenure, but has a strong prima facie case for meeting URI’s standards, then it will be time to mobilize again.”

    I just think it might be easier if we lay the groundwork now rather than letting the URI administration off so easily.

    FWIW, I saw somewhere (tho can’t find it now) that the AAUP is satisfied with the recent URI statement, saying something to the effect of “We are glad that this matter is being put to rest.”