Scholars targeted for their speech by activist students who claim they are offended face a 74% chance of being punished, a study from last month found.
The study, from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), found that nearly 3-out-4 professors who had been targeted by activists in smear campaigns were punished by their school, with a quarter of those targeted losing their jobs.
FIRE created “an interactive database examining over 400 incidents since 2015 — searchable by faculty characteristics, the source of the outrage, whether the pressure is from the political left or right of the scholar, the outcome, and more” that “documents attempts to penalize scholars for speech and expression that, although often controversial, is protected by the First Amendment.”
“Scholars should not lose their jobs for expressing controversial views,” said FIRE Research Fellow Komi German, who helped author the report. “But too often, that’s exactly what happens. Disagreement should be the catalyst for debate, not a license to silence disagreeable opinions and penalize those who hold them.”
The report also found that incidents of faculty targeting have quadrupled since 2015 — peaking in 2020 with 113 smear campaigns. So far, 2021 “is on pace to match or exceed 2020’s record,” FIRE noted.
Other notable findings in the report, according to FIRE, include:
- Undergraduates are by far the largest source of attacks on scholars from the left. For scholars attacked from the right, the public and administrators are the leading sources.
- Targeting incidents occur most often in disciplines that are at the core of liberal arts education: law, political science, English, history, and philosophy.
- The problem spans ideologies: while most campaigns (62%) came from the political “left” of the scholar, 34% came from the scholar’s “right.”
- Most incidents occur because of speech or expression on social media.
- Campuses where the most targeting incidents occur tend to also have severely restrictive speech codes, and are unlikely to have adopted the Chicago Statement guaranteeing a commitment to free speech.
Sean Stevens, FIRE’s senior research fellow and another co-author of the report, said that rewarding the smear campaigns will keep them coming.
“If administrators keep caving in to demands to punish faculty for their expression, the demands will continue to increase. Colleges need courageous leadership committed to the values and mission of their institutions — not spineless bureaucrats who give in to mob demands,” he said.
To that end, FIRE established a legal fund to help professors who have been the victim of smear campaigns. One professor, University of Illinois-Chicago law professor Jason Kilborn, was able to keep his job after student activists tried to get him fired for his response to a student complaining about an exam question. As The Daily Wire previously reported, Kilborn included a hypothetical question about an employee quitting a company “after she attended a meeting in which other managers expressed their anger at Plaintiff, calling her a ‘n___’ and ‘b___’ [sic].” Students complained and circulated a petition against Kilborn, who later participated in a Zoom call with a member of the Black Law Students Association (BLSA). During that conversation, the BLSA member asked the professor when dean Darby Dickerson had given the “attack letter” to him. Kilborn allegedly speculated, in jest: “I suspect she’s afraid if I saw the horrible things said about me in that letter I would become homicidal.”
The comment was reported to the school’s Behavior Threat Assessment team, and he was suspended. Kilborn was able to keep his job.