Brooklyn College (BC) has reinstated an adjunct instructor it fired just days ago. Kristofer Petersen-Overton, who is also a graduate student, had been fired shortly after his academic writings and his course, “Politics of the Middle East,” were condemned by a member of the New York State Assembly, Dov Hikind. FIRE wrote BC President Karen L. Gould last Friday, raising questions about academic freedom and due process in its treatment of Petersen-Overton, and reminding BC of its duty to uphold constitutional rights on campus. Fortunately, BC has reviewed its actions and reversed course. While this incident should never have taken place, BC deserves praise for acting swiftly to protect academic freedom once outside critics called upon it to do so.
Public colleges and universities have a responsibility to safeguard their institutional academic freedom even when it becomes difficult politically. A marketplace of ideas cannot function on a campus where professors’ jobs are subject to the preferences of the politicians in power at the time. Assemblyman Hikind, like every other American, has the right to complain about the hiring of Petersen-Overton or about any department or college that hires a professor he thinks is unqualified. But at a public college that is bound by the First Amendment, as BC is—and at any private college that promises free speech and academic freedom to its faculty members—the college may not punish that professor merely because of such criticism. The college must follow its own stated policies for reviewing the academic work of its own professors. To do otherwise gravely threatens the academic enterprise.
Unfortunately, this is not the first time this process has gone wrong at Brooklyn College. Indeed, FIRE even has a video about a previous case. In that case, Brooklyn College Professor KC Johnson publicly criticized perceived indoctrination and viewpoint discrimination by members of the Brooklyn College faculty. As a result, he faced a possible investigation by a Brooklyn College “Integrity Committee” for his constitutionally protected speech. In another swift and crucial victory for freedom of speech and academic freedom, Brooklyn College affirmed that Johnson would not be subjected to such an unconstitutional inquisition into his views. The college gave up the investigation mere days after FIRE came to Johnson’s defense.
In the present case, BC originally argued that it had fired Petersen-Overton because he had been hired improperly by his department, not having possessed sufficient academic credentials to teach a graduate course. This argument backfired, however, when people began coming forward to state that BC had previously hired many similarly situated people to teach graduate courses.
In our letter to President Gould, we wrote:
Please understand that FIRE defends free speech, academic freedom, and due process for all students and faculty members because we understand that the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of speech is more than simply a legal doctrine-it represents the belief that open discourse is critical to democratic society and that the merits of ideas are best decided in a free marketplace of expression rather than by government officials. History has decisively and repeatedly demonstrated that attempts by public officials to regulate or punish opinions are fraught with far greater peril than even the most offensive words.
[…] In addition, as the Supreme Court wrote in Sweezy v. New Hampshire, 354 U.S. 234, 250 (1957):
The essentiality of freedom in the community of American universities is almost self-evident. No one should underestimate the vital role in a democracy that is played by those who guide and train our youth. To impose any strait jacket upon the intellectual leaders in our colleges and universities would imperil the future of our Nation. … Teachers and students must always remain free to inquire, to study and to evaluate, to gain new maturity and understanding; otherwise our civilization will stagnate and die.
This principle holds regardless of how controversial a professor’s views and writings might be.
A noteworthy example of this principle in action came yesterday from the National Association of Scholars, which both criticized Petersen-Overton’s course and argued that BC should reinstate him for the sake of academic freedom. (FIRE takes no position on the academic merit of any particular course except, maybe, a course on free speech.)
FIRE hopes that the many people who came to Petersen-Overton’s defense would also have come to KC Johnson’s defense, and that they all will similarly speak up for academic freedom, even for the professors whose views they would criticize. Respect for academic freedom requires no less.
Adam Kissel is the Vice President of Programs for FIRE.