When Zachary Smith saw the news that there would be a “Back the Blue” rally in Omaha on Saturday morning he joined many online in feeling that such a rally couldn’t be separated by the racist actions of the Omaha Police Department, which have a deep past and have been on full display this last month.
“Lemme fix this headline for you, @OWHnews: ‘White supremacist rally in Omaha to showcase Midwestern racism.”
As far as political tweets go, it was pretty standard punchy fare, guaranteed to get a lot of nodding heads as well as to anger the OPD organizers of the event. It joined dozens of similar tweets, Facebook posts, Instagram shots, etc.
Those who attended the event heard speakers of all races talk about their support for the police. They also ended up posting photos of Proud Boys flags, and were told by others at the rally to “get a job”, “fuck your reparations”, and “justice was served for James Scurlock”, referring to the young Black man murdered in Omaha by an armed white counter-protester. So . . . white supremacist rally showcasing Midwestern racism? You decide.
Zachary Smith’s tweet is part of the critical national debate over policing happening in the streets and online, and like everything said in that debate, it’s protected by the first amendment. The government can’t persecute him for his views. But his employer can.
Legally speaking, there’s no law prohibiting employers from deciding to discipline or fire their employees for doing their jobs as citizens in a democracy—participating in public debate over matters of public importance—as Juli Briskman, for example, found out after flipping off the President’s motorcade as it went by. She was subsequently fired. (Then she entered politics and won local office in Virginia.)
Unless, of course, you work for the government, and then they are prohibited by the first amendment from punishing you for exercising free speech. A good example of a government employer reminding us all of that came when the Provost at Indiana University Bloomington, Lauren Robel, refused to fire or otherwise discipline a professor for his rabidly misogynist and racist views, which he expressed frequently online. She stated: “We cannot, nor would we, fire Professor Rasmusen for his posts as a private citizen, as vile and stupid as they are, because the First Amendment of the United States Constitution forbids us to do so. That is not a close call.”
Zachary Smith is an Associate Professor of History at Creighton University, a private educational institution. So legally, Creighton can punish Professor Smith for his first amendment protected speech if they chose to do so, which both the Creighton administration and their employees surely know. Whatever motivated the Creighton administration to get involved, their commitment to the mission of the university should have ensured that their only comment was a forceful public assertion of their employee’s free speech rights.
Universities are places where ideas are thrashed out. Students experience a wide variety of political ideas through the many classes they take during their degrees, and often within a single class, where a teacher might assign readings by authors with contrasting views on the subject. It is inimical to free thinking to force everyone adopt one single opinion in a controversy and to censor any opinion or information they might have to the contrary. The stated “goal” of Creighton University, according to its president, is to “promot[e] unity within our community”. Unity sounds very nice, but as this statement was made in the context of suppressing the speech of one of its community members, it’s pretty clear what that means. Those who disagree with the President’s ideas on the matter (or the ideas of whoever is pressuring the President) should keep their thoughts to themselves, or suffer the consequences.
“Creighton faculty members conduct research to enhance teaching, to contribute to the betterment of society, and to discover new knowledge. Faculty and staff stimulate critical and creative thinking and provide ethical perspectives for dealing with an increasingly complex world.”-Part of Creighton mission statement, less likely to happen now.
Creighton teachers will now be taking note, and wondering what will happen to them if their courses include academic studies which discuss the origins of police forces in America. The fact is, modern police forces came from slave patrols in the South and from the need to protect the property of the wealthy and to suppress labor strikes in the North. As Simon Balto, Assistant Professor of History at the University of Iowa, and author of a 2019 book on the history of policing, noted in a recent interview, “the fundamental premise that the police exist, and the police were brought into existence to ‘protect us’ or keep us safe, that’s a myth. The police . . . were first put into place in order to protect capital and to protect racial hierarchies. And so, when we think about the ways in which police forces currently operate, if we know that as the founding story of police, I think that the way that they operate makes a whole lot more sense. Because they are essentially continuing to do now what they were founded to do, which is to protect capital and to protect racial hierarchy.” While there are other academic authors that might disagree with this statement, Balto’s book is an important work in the history of policing and any responsible professor would assign it in a class that dealt with the topic, along with some of those who disagree with Balto. But right about now, anyone contemplating it is probably wondering whether they will be accused of “impeding [the president’s] goal of promoting unity” at Creighton. Maybe they won’t assign that book after all.
This is why professors are supposed to get an extra protection for their speech, beyond the one we all have as citizens. It’s called academic freedom, and its goal is to ensure that professors don’t censor ideas from their syllabi or their publications because they’re worried about job consequences. It’s not a legal protection, but it’s a tradition within higher education, and it’s one that all universities with any integrity protect and cherish. The job of universities is to generate new ideas and to communicate to students the range of ideas that experts consider plausible. Sometimes these ideas will be widely loved right off the bat. Sometimes they will upset people, including people in power, like the president of your university or the politicians in your town. Sometimes those ideas will eventually become accepted—or critically necessary—to our society, and other times they will fade away. But all the ideas a professor who is an expert on the topic deems plausible or significant should get a hearing. And when professors are punished or threatened for expressing those ideas, whether in the classroom, their publications, or the public square, censorship closes in, and we’re all a little poorer and our democracy a little less safe.