Liberties Reporting on First Amendment freedoms

Guilt by Trump association at UC Boulder?

Free Speech | The school takes aim at a conservative legal scholar
by Steve West
Posted 2/08/21, 05:28 pm

University of Colorado, Boulder officials are facing blowback for imposing sanctions on visiting scholar John Eastman, an attorney for former President Donald Trump. The school took issue with Eastman’s brief remarks in support of unproven claims of election fraud at the Jan. 6 Trump rally in Washington. Just an hour later, Trump made his own speech, and his supporters rioted at the Capitol. Eastman’s tussle with UC Boulder highlights the tension between universities’ institutional interests and faculty’s free speech rights—particularly in regards to unpopular positions, false claims, or insensitive comments.

Eastman retired from his tenured professorship at Chapman University a week after the speech. He also served as the 2020-21 visiting scholar in conservative thought and policy at UC Boulder’s Benson Center for the Study of Western Civilization, which was founded to increase the institution’s intellectual and political diversity. UC Boulder initially acknowledged the First Amendment protected Eastman’s comments. But by Jan. 10, Benson Center Director Daniel Jacobson informed Eastman he would no longer be teaching classes and his appointment would not be renewed. On Jan. 21, school officials revoked Eastman’s responsibility to organize a speaker series and barred him from doing any outreach on behalf of the university.

Eastman fired back, calling UC Boulder Chancellor Philip DiStefano’s statements libelous and possibly malicious—allowing him to sue. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) on Wednesday sent a letter to DiStefano accusing the university of overreach.

Other professors have found themselves in similar positions over their unpopular opinions.

Last year the University of California, Los Angeles suspended veteran management school professor Gordon Klein, accusing him of racism and abuse of power after he declined to extend an exam deadline for a black student in the wake of the George Floyd protests. Administrators reinstated him months later after a petition supporting Klein garnered more than 75,000 signatures.

On Tuesday, Dallas-area Collin College let go longtime professors Suzanne Jones and Audra Heaslip after a very public disagreement with college President H. Neil Matkin over the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Even Christian universities face blowback from students or alumni for supporting faculty who take Biblical positions on sexuality. Both professor David Upham at the University of Dallas and Dr. Christina Crenshaw at Baylor University faced criticism for comments on social media critical of President Joe Biden’s transgender mandate. The universities affirmed their support for free speech and church teaching.

FIRE’s Adam Steinbaugh, who wrote the letter to UC Boulder, said tension between faculty and administrators is baked into the academic environment.

“The bargain the university makes with faculty members creates a space where people have different views,” he said. “Some of them are going to say things that are going to hurt the reputation of the institution … but we extend that latitude to them for the purpose of being able to engage in the exploration or advocacy of ideas—even some that people might find reprehensible.”

College administrators and other faculty are free to criticize Eastman’s views, and students can decide not to take his class. But the university cannot retaliate against him for exercising a First Amendment right, Steinbaugh said. As he wrote in the letter, “unpopular speech is often the very speech most in need of protection.”

UC Boulder has not yet responded to FIRE’s letter.


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Steve West

Steve is a legal correspondent for WORLD. He is a graduate of World Journalism Institute, Wake Forest University School of Law, and N.C. State University. He worked for 34 years as a federal prosecutor and is now an attorney in private practice. Steve resides with his wife in Raleigh, N.C. Follow him on Twitter @slntplanet.

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