Placing limits on free speech is always a controversial issue, perhaps more so with professors at public universities. While U.S. professors have always valued their First Amendment right to voice their opinions, universities have disciplined teachers who cross a perceived line.
Recent court cases over such conflicts may set new precedents for what professors can and can’t say. Academic freedom should be compromised as little as necessary, and public employees should be allowed free speech as long as they don’t undercut their employers.
Ivor van Heerden, a Louisiana State University scientist, sued the university and accused it of not renewing his contract because of comments he made in interviews criticizing the construction and design of state levees. LSU argued that van Heerden’s comments were work-related and he made his statements as a faculty member, according to the Associated Press.
Under a 2006 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, public employees can be disciplined for work-related speech. However, the case involved a district attorney’s office and the Supreme Court intentionally left out free speech related to scholarship and teaching, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. Debate continued to exist after the 2006 ruling, and it has not always been clear what speech is work-related. In the Louisiana case, a U.S. District Court judge ruled in favor of van Heerden, arguing that speaking to the media was not part of his job.
This decision allowed the judge to avoid the more controversial issue of whether the Supreme Court precedent should be applied to university faculty members. However, another case in the U.S. Court of Appeals takes the issue head-on.
Loretta Capeheart, a tenured professor at Northeastern Illinois University, claims she was denied promotions and an award for her protest activities. Capeheart, adviser to the school’s Socialist Club, advocated for student protesters arrested in 2007 and publicly complained about the university’s failure to hire Hispanic faculty members during a campus visit from the Illinois Legislature’s Latino Caucus, according to the Chronicle.
Capeheart’s actions were more work-related, and the court would set a new precedent if it rules in her favor. The American Association of University Professors filed a friend-of-the-court brief in August in support of Capeheart.
Regardless of the court’s eventual decision, free speech should generally be protected under the umbrella of academic freedom. Professors are often experts in their fields and should be allowed to voice their honest opinions, particularly since many have non-university roles such as authors and community organizers. If van Heerden believed the poorly built levees contributed to flooding during Hurricane Katrina, he should be allowed to say so.
However, public universities should be allowed some control over their employees, especially in situations where faculty members are seen as representatives of the university, as may have been the case in some of Capeheart’s actions.