Even reading Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” aloud in a university classroom can get a professor in hot water.
Administrators at UCLA called out political science lecturer William Peris for reading King’s historic 1963 letter defending civil disobedience in two classes on the history of racism earlier this month. Students complained that hearing Peris read King’s use of the N-word caused them “distress and anger.” Peris, an Air Force veteran, quickly apologized, but the university’s Discrimination Prevention Office still opened an investigation.
The U.S. Department of Education sent a letter on Thursday warning the university it “improperly and abusively targeted” Peris, violating both the First Amendment’s free speech guarantees and its own standard of conduct, The Wall Street Journal reported. The department told UCLA Chancellor Gene Block the school could face monetary penalties or a cutoff of federal research grants.
Earlier this month, the school suspended lecturer Gordon Klein for declining to modify exam requirements for African American students during protests over the death of George Floyd.
UCLA isn’t the only university facing questions about academic freedom. Michigan State University recently dismissed tenured professor Stephen Hsu from his post as senior vice president for research and innovation. Students accused him of racism because he believes that institutions should not categorically exclude scientific research into differences among population groups.
The University of Chicago reinstated professor Harold Uhlig last week to his post as editor of the Journal of Political Economy after reviewing claims he made racially discriminatory comments. Several economists had called for Uhlig’s ouster after a series of tweets in which he criticized the leaders of the Black Lives Matter organization’s position on defunding police, calling them “flat Earthers.”
And the challenges extend beyond higher education. Tiffany Riley, principal of a K–12 school in Windsor, Vt., is on administrative leave after making comments that some perceived as critical of the Black Lives Matter movement on a private social media page. The local school board is seeking to fire her. “I firmly believe Black Lives Matter, but I DO NOT agree with coercive measures taken to get this point across; some of which are falsified in an attempt to prove a point,” Riley said in her Facebook post, the Valley News West in Lebanon, N.H., reported. —S.W.