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Professor’s Twitter account removed after student at other college complains he criticized Obama

UPDATED

Local news station falsely claims he violated social media policy

Wouldn’t it be nice if the mainstream media could report both accurately and clearly?

Unfortunately that’s not what WUSA9 did in its report on a Catholic University of America adjunct professor whose old tweets got him in trouble with an administrator.

The Washington, D.C.-area TV station reported Wednesday afternoon that John Tieso’s Twitter account “was removed” after the administrator called him in for a meeting about his “racially-charged” speech.

The meeting was prompted by a letter from an anonymous student at another university, who pointed to three “racist” tweets by the Busch School of Business instructor. WUSA9 has a copy of the letter but only cited one tweet by @johntieso from two years ago, commenting on a speech in Africa by former President Barack Obama.

“That’s the Obama we all came to know and hate,” the user wrote. “Incredibly incompetent and vain. Perhaps he might consider staying in Africa and giving all his money to his people.”

Here’s where WUSA9 shows its disregard for its job. The article never answers whether CUA ordered Tieso to delete his Twitter account or lose his job, encouraged him to be more restrained in the future, or something else entirely.

The station specifies that it asked Tieso for comment. Allegedly he told WUSA9 that “I know nothing about” the cited Obama tweet:

I have never connected my university address with my Twitter account, but you have apparently done that, and I resent it. My views are my own.

Tieso is correct. According to the screenshot of his Twitter account posted by WUSA9, Tieso never mentions CUA or even college in his bio. It links to his business consulting blog, last updated Jan. 1. Tieso doesn’t mention CUA or college on that website either, describing himself as an “author/consultant.”

Showing its disinterest in reading comprehension, WUSA9 falsely characterizes CUA’s social media policy:

The school’s social media policy outlines the need for disclaimer language in personal posts. Prior to its removal, no such language existed in the biography section of Tieso’s account.

Wrong. The social media policy explicitly limits itself to faculty who express their views while identifying themselves with CUA, something Tieso never does:

When staff and faculty are expressing individual or collective views and their University affiliation is listed, they should make clear that the statements or opinions are their own and that they are not speaking for or in the name of the University. In making personal postings in such instances, staff and faculty should use disclaimer language such as: “The views expressed in this [posting, blog, site, account, etc.] are my own and do not represent the views of The Catholic University of America.”

In another part of the policy warning that personal posts “may be interpreted by others” as the “official” CUA view, the university clearly limits that provision to “persons in leadership roles” – something that does not remotely apply to an adjunct professor such as Tieso.

As for the university administration, its statement to WUSA9 doesn’t even allude to Tieso’s Twitter account, making it unclear what the news station even asked. Notice the qualifier “on campus,” not “on Twitter,” and recall that the complaint against Tieso came from a student at a different university:

We take allegations of racially-charged speech on campus to be matters of serious concern, and we encourage those students who have been made to feel unsafe or uncomfortable due to racially-charged speech to come forward and make a report. We want to hear from you and address your concerns. We have reporting measures in place for our community to safely report any type of ethical misconduct.

At least WUSA9 actually interviewed some of Tieso’s students, none of whom bad-mouthed him. They were not aware of “any prior student complaints” about his Twitter account, and described his behavior toward students of color as “respectful,” in the station’s words. It did manage to find two students, not identified as Tieso’s pupils, who called his Twitter content “inappropriate.”

Karna Lozoya, executive director of strategic communications in the Office of the President, provided more detail in a statement to The College Fix Friday, but did not answer the questions The Fix asked: whether the administration order Tieso to remove his Twitter account or tone down his tweets as a condition of keeping his job.

Tieso’s dean, Andrew Abela, “received an anonymous letter on May 5 (at a little after 1 am),” Lozoya wrote in an email. “He contacted John Tieso that afternoon to ask him about the concerns expressed in the letter. Mr. Tieso removed his Twitter account shortly after that phone call.” WUSA9 contacted her the same day.

Lozoya said she “encouraged the [WUSA9] reporter to encourage the students to file a complaint.” She provided the university’s full statement, which on its face does not apply to Tieso’s tweets.

As WUSA9 noted, it refers to “racially-charged speech on campus,” not online, but also “students,” without clarifying whether it applies to only CUA students or to self-identified students anywhere. At the same time, the statement refers specifically to “our community” when noting the “reporting measures in place … to safely report any type of ethical misconduct.”

Unlike WUSA9, Lozoya did not mention that the student who made the report was not from the CUA “community.” The statement does say that the university investigates “[a]ll reports,” but again, specifies that they are investigated “according to University procedure.”

The Fix has asked Lozoya to clarify how the university has authority over Tieso’s tweets, which do not mention CUA in any way and were not reported by a CUA student, under its own stated policies and media statement.

An administrator calling in a professor to a meeting, for speech that is facially protected by the university’s own policies, can be considered an infringement of academic freedom in and of itself and possibly a breach of contract.

Read the WUSA9 article.

UPDATE: The university administration responded to a Fix query after this post was published. The response has been added.

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IMAGE: Pete Souza/White House

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About the Author
Associate Editor
Greg spent several years as a technology policy reporter and editor for Warren Communications News in Washington, D.C., and guest host on C-SPAN’s “The Communicators.” He co-founded the alternative newspaper PUNCH and served as a reporter, editor and columnist for The Falcon at Seattle Pacific University.

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