Defending free speech and academic freedom creates a hostile environment, black faculty say

Defending free speech and academic freedom creates a hostile environment, black faculty say
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“An open letter signed by dozens of faculty at San Diego State University argues that the ‘mostly white tenured professors’ who use the faculty listserv to defend free speech and academic freedom create a hostile environment for the school’s black scholars,” reports The College Fix.

It is conceivable that this strange allegation of a “hostile environment” might be an attempt to get the university to discipline the white professors for “racial harassment.” Speech is considered “racial harassment” in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act if it creates a racially “hostile work environment.” But the emails do not seem anywhere severe or pervasive enough to create a hostile environment for a reasonable African-American, nor do they appear to have been written because of any employee’s race, so the university should not discipline anyone. (See Caver v. City of Trenton (2005); Lyle v. Warner Brothers (2006)).

In addition, the emails do not appear to be aimed at any specific black professor, which means the university could not be held liable for them even if they did deeply offend black faculty, according to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. That would be fatal to any racial harassment lawsuit, under the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Rodriguez v. Maricopa Community College District (2010). It ruled that the First Amendment required the dismissal of minority college staffers’ racial harassment lawsuit over racially-charged anti-immigration emails by a white instructor, because the emails did not target any Hispanic staffer, even if they were perceived as racist.

Here is a portion of the College Fix story:

At issue is a debate raging at the public institution regarding Professor J. Angelo Corlett’s use of racial epithets to explain the difference between racial and racist language.

The Latino philosophy professor was removed from teaching a class earlier this semester as SDSU investigates his pedagogy and other concerns.

“The support for Corlett has been expressed in a number of venues to which we as faculty have been subjected to. This means that our Black faculty colleagues are also being subjected to this collectively generated hostile environment which privileges tenured professors ‘freedom’ over their safety and well-being,” the open letter states.

“Every day we have opened our inboxes to messages circulating on faculty listservs in the College of Arts and Letters that undermine student concerns about Corlett in favor of prioritizing the fears and insecurities of mostly white tenured professors, some of whom have already retired.”

It does not list specific examples or name names.

Titled “Open Letter in Solidarity with Black Students and Faculty at SDSU March/April 2022,” it also bemoaned the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s efforts to defend Corlett’s academic freedom.

The SDSU faculty call out FIRE’s letter in support of Corlett, which they claim “downplays student concerns in order to exploit this situation to mobilize their supporters against a nebulous academic culture of ‘censorship.’”

FIRE’s letter stated in part: “As faculty, we are deeply concerned by this apparent violation of Professor Corlett’s academic freedom, which is protected by both SDSU policy and Corlett’s First Amendment rights as a professor at a public university.”

“Furthermore, we worry about the implications of this case for faculty members’ due process rights. Preemptively removing a professor from the classroom is a serious sanction justified only in the most severe circumstances. Such a measure is wholly uncalled for as a response to a professor’s classroom speech demonstrably protected by academic freedom, even if that speech is found offensive or troubling by some listeners.”

It has 162 professoriate signers as of Sunday night.

Hans Bader

Hans Bader

Hans Bader practices law in Washington, D.C. After studying economics and history at the University of Virginia and law at Harvard, he practiced civil-rights, international-trade, and constitutional law. He also once worked in the Education Department. Hans writes for and has appeared on C-SPAN’s “Washington Journal.” Contact him at


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