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USD law professor under investigation for personal blog post critical of Chinese government

UPDATED

A professor at the University of San Diego School of Law is under investigation by administrators for a personal blog post that used colorful language in reference to Chinese government propaganda.

“If you believe that the coronavirus did not escape from the lab in Wuhan, you have to at least consider that you are an idiot who is swallowing whole a lot of Chinese cock swaddle,” wrote Professor Thomas Smith on March 10 on his blog the Right Coast.

Students took notice and complained, and Smith appended an update.

“It appears that some people are interpreting my reference to ‘Chinese cock swaddle,’ as a reference to an ethnic group. That is a misinterpretation. To be clear, I was referring to the Chinese government,” Smith added to the post.

Despite Smith’s clarification, as well as the fact that he wrote it on his personal blog and not in an official capacity as a law professor, he remains under investigation.

In a statement emailed Friday to The College Fix, USD spokesperson Elena Gomez said that “While the blog is not hosted by the University of San Diego, these forms of bias, wherever they occur, have an adverse impact on our community.”

“It is especially concerning when the disparaging language comes from a member of our community,” Gomez added. “A core value of the University of San Diego School of Law is that all members of the community must be treated with dignity and respect.”

“University policies specifically prohibit harassment, including the use of epithets, derogatory comments, or slurs based on race or national origin, among other categories,” Gomez stated.

“We have received formal complaints relating to the faculty member’s conduct, and in accordance with university procedures, there will be a process to review whether university or law school policies have been violated.”

According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, a “student brought the post to the attention of the Asian Pacific American Law Student Association at USD, and the group filed a formal complaint with the help of the Student Bar Association.”

And students told KGTV that “they’ve made formal complaints about the professor several times in the last year.” The news station also republished a letter sent to law students last week from USD law school Dean Robert Schapiro regarding the investigation.

Schapiro, who took the helm of the prestigious law school just three months ago on Jan. 1, told the students:

It has come to my attention that a faculty member made a blog post concerning the origin of COVID-19, using offensive language in reference to people from China. As I wrote to you in a previous message, COVID-19 has been associated with an alarming increase in hate crimes directed against the Asian and Pacific Islander (API) community, with racist commentary relating to the virus and its origins. While the blog is not hosted by the University of San Diego, these forms of bias, wherever they occur, have an adverse impact on our community. It is especially concerning when the disparaging language comes from a member of our community.

Scientists are investigating the exact origins of COVID-19. Whatever the realm for debate by experts about this scientific question, there is no place for language that demeans a particular national group. Such language undermines our shared commitment to creating an inclusive, welcoming community.

A core value of the University of San Diego School of Law is that all members of the community must be treated with dignity and respect. University policies specifically prohibit harassment, including the use of epithets, derogatory comments, or slurs based on race or national origin, among other categories. I have received formal complaints relating to the faculty member’s conduct, and in accordance with university procedures, there will be a process to review whether university or law school policies have been violated.

I will be meeting as soon as possible with leaders of the Asian Pacific American Law Students Association and the Student Bar Association to discuss further steps. In addition, I will continue to work with faculty, students, staff, and alumni over the course of this spring and beyond to develop and implement plans to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion at the law school. This occurrence reminds us again of the importance and urgency of this project. I will be sending you more information about plans as they develop.

It is clear that we have much work to do together to repair and enhance our community. That work must begin by acknowledging the harm caused by this kind of demeaning language.

In response, seven members of the USD law faculty wrote to the dean to offer a rebuttal. The letter, obtained Saturday by The College Fix, states:

We have read your email to the law school community as well as your email to one of us. Here is our reaction.

The faculty member in question made a political comment in forceful language. He has the right and perhaps the obligation as a citizen and an academic to comment on matters of public concern such as the Chinese government’s handling of COVID, and to do so in evocative and forceful language. No fair, much less lawyerly way of reading what he wrote would conclude anything other than that “Chinese cock swaddle” was referring to propaganda of the Chinese government and surely not denigrating people of Chinese origin or descent. The context makes this perfectly clear.

Blog posts by academics fall within the bounds of academic freedom as defined by the AAUP. Student concerns about discrimination should always be considered soberly. Yet, an academic institution committed to free inquiry cannot allow misplaced accusations of bigotry to become an all-purpose tool for silencing critical comment. To allow such accusations to undermine academic freedom ultimately ensures an environment of fear and suspicion for all members of the academic community, undermining rather than ensuring a welcoming and respectful discourse.

Describing the disputed comments in this case as “offensive language in reference to people from China” of a piece with “hate crimes directed against the Asian and Pacific Islander (API) community [and] racist commentary” inevitably creates the impression that judgment has been rendered in advance and the outcome of the promised review has been predetermined.

We are concerned that treating these complaints the way you are doing validates student reactions and strained interpretations that are misguided, that reflect a lack of critical thinking, and that will chill faculty members’ teaching and scholarship. We sincerely hope it will be possible to work together to find a better way.

Weighing in on the matter, UCLA law Professor Eugene Volokh, who specializes in First Amendment issues, pointed out that even without Smith’s update to his controversial blog post it’s clear he is referring to the government of China.

“To the extent people who feel some connection to China find it offensive, that is no basis for the university to prohibit such speech, or even investigate a faculty member for such speech—just as a university has no business investigating a faculty member for sharp criticism of the government of Israel (or of other Israeli institutions), or of Russia or, back in the day, South Africa or whatever else,” Volokh wrote on Reason.

On Monday, the Academic Freedom Alliance released a statement in support of Professor Smith.

“Not only is the interpretation of Professor Smith’s phrasing as a slur based on race or national origin a tendentious misreading of the blog post in question, but the suggestion that a single phrase in a single blog post commenting on the behavior of the Chinese government and international health agencies can trigger the procedures of the university’s harassment policy sends a chilling message to all faculty,” the statement read in part.

“The Academic Freedom Alliance calls upon USD leadership to adhere to its academic freedom principles by rescinding its denunciation of Professor Smith and terminating all disciplinary proceedings against him based on his March 10, 2021 blog post.”

Editor’s note: Updated to include a statement from the Academic Freedom Alliance.

MORE: USC faces internal revolt for punishing professor who used Chinese word that sounds like n-word

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About the Author
Fix Editor
Jennifer Kabbany is editor of The College Fix. She previously worked as a daily newspaper reporter and columnist for a decade in Southern California, and prior to that held editorial positions at The Weekly Standard, Washington Times and FrontPageMagazine. She is also a Robert Novak Journalism Fellowship recipient and has contributed to National Review.