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Another university flunks the free-speech test

Universities love to portray themselves as havens of open discourse. Lately, however, some have shown themselves to be pusillanimous weaklings in defense of intellectual debate and plain old free speech. Take Drexel University, a Philadelphia institution whose administrators either don’t know much about history, or simply find it more palatable to display themselves as cowards than to stand firm behind a faculty member.

The fuse for Drexel’s crisis of conscience was a Christmas Eve tweet by George Ciccariello-Maher, an associate professor in the politics department. “All I want for Christmas is White Genocide,” Ciccariello-Maher tweeted. The next day, he followed up with a second tweet: “To clarify: when the whites were massacred during the Haitian revolution, that was a very good thing indeed.” Ciccariello-Maher has since taken both tweets offline, along with his entire Twitter feed

The tweets promptly elicited outrage largely from the right wing, including Breitbart.com, which labeled Ciccariello-Maher “a communist professor” and listed, among his intellectual crimes, that his Twitter feed included “anti-Americanism, slams of President Donald Trump, attacks on Jews, as well as pro-Black Lives Matter and pro-communist sloganeering. He also tweeted a picture of a ‘Make America Great Again’ hat set on fire.”

Evidently stupefied to the point of insensibility by the reaction, and without seeking understanding from their own professor before responding, Drexel administrators folded almost instantaneously. On Christmas Day, they issued a statement calling the tweet “inflammatory.”

“While the University recognizes the right of its faculty to freely express their thoughts and opinions in public debate,” they stated, “Professor Ciccariello-Maher's comments are utterly reprehensible, deeply disturbing, and do not in any way reflect the values of the University.” The statement concluded with a transparent threat: “The University is taking this situation very seriously. We contacted Ciccariello-Maher today to arrange a meeting to discuss this matter in detail.” 

In academic circles, this is known as trying to have things both ways. One can’t “recognize” the right of free speech yet assert that this particular exercise of free speech does not “in any way reflect the values of the University.” 

What’s just as much a matter of concern is the evidence that Drexel’s bosses aren’t up to speed on the historical context of the term “White Genocide.” As a result, they jumped to a conclusion about Ciccariello-Maher’s tweets that was exactly wrong. They plainly thought he was advocating the wholesale slaughter of white people. In fact, he was satirizing a conspiracy theory widespread in the right-wing racist fever swamp. So they ended up labeling an attack on racist conspiracy-mongering “utterly reprehensible.” We can assume that’s not what they meant to do, but they’re responsible for their own ignorance.

As Ciccariello-Maher explains, “white genocide” is “an idea invented by white supremacists and used to denounce everything from interracial relationships to multicultural policies,” including integration and immigration. Racists have used the term to attack racially inclusive policies and norms since at least the 1990s. Almost as soon as it appeared, it was recognized as a racist trope: When Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.) and Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) were discovered to have ties to a group espousing the concept, they were publicly pilloried and wisely issued apologies

Even Wikipedia knows about this, so it’s a mystery why Drexel administrators couldn’t find out. Of course, they can take comfort in the fact that they share their ignorance with Donald Trump, who retweeted from a White Genocide Twitter account back in January. As for Ciccariello-Maher’s tweet about Haiti, it was a reference to the massacre of whites in 1804 during a slave uprising against an exceptionally cruel and vicious slaveholder class.

Drexel’s no-defense defense of its professor harks back to the cowardly handling by the University of Illinois of a controversy involving Steven Salaita, an expert on Arab-Israeli affairs. The university hired Salaita for a tenured position, but fired him unceremoniously after he issued some strongly expressed tweets about Israeli policies toward Palestinians. The university tried to claim that because Salaita’s appointment hadn’t yet been formally ratified by its board, he technically wasn’t yet a faculty member, so academic freedom wasn’t at stake. Even worse, as we observed at the time, were signs that the university was kowtowing to its donors in kicking Salaita out the door. Eventually, this weaseling cost the university $875,000 in a settlement with Salaita, the equivalent of about 10 years of his expected salary.

Such cases are worrisome harbingers of the future of academic freedom in America. The right-wing organization Turning Point USA has evidently felt itself emboldened by the results of the election to launch a Professor Watchlist identifying faculty members who it decides are engaging in “leftist propaganda in the classroom.” Erik Loomis of the University of Rhode Island, a proud charter member of the 125-strong initial roster, calls the watchlist “a rough draft of a possible Trump-era blacklist.

He’s correct. No one should overlook how strongly Drexel’s words resemble the watchlist organizers’ claim “to fight for free speech and the right for​​ professors to say whatever they wish​,” with the proviso that “students, parents, and alumni deserve to know the specific incidents and names of professors that advance a radical agenda in lecture halls.” This is how witch hunts start — with protestations of high principles, as long as they comply with political restrictions. 

Ciccariello has mounted a vigorous defense of his words. “White Genocide,” he writes, “is a figment of the racist imagination, it should be mocked, and I’m glad to have mocked it.” But he laments that “this satirical tweet became fodder for online white supremacists to systematically harass me and my employer, Drexel University,” via “a coordinated smear campaign… orchestrated to send mass tweets and emails to myself, my employer, and my colleagues,” including “hundreds of death threats.” 

He warns that Drexel’s “tepid defense of free speech sends a chilling message and sets a frightening precedent. It exposes untenured and temporary faculty not only to internal disciplinary scrutiny, but equally importantly, it encourages harassment as an effective means to impact university policies.”

In the coming fight, he says, “universities will need to choose whether they are on the side of free expression and academic debate, or on the side of the racist mob.”

So far, Drexel has chosen wrong. If the rest of American academia follows its path, we’re all in trouble.

Keep up to date with Michael Hiltzik. Follow @hiltzikm on Twitter, see his Facebook page, or email michael.hiltzik@latimes.com.

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