Editorial: Academic freedom for college professors must be protected


This photo take May 2, 2016, shows Marquette University Professor John McAdams, right, speaking during the news conference in Milwaukee. A dispute between the conservative professor and the university that fired him goes before the Wisconsin Supreme Court to decide whether the teacher’s termination was because of a blog post or his conduct. Former Marquette University professor McAdams says in a lawsuit he was fired for exercising his freedom of speech by criticizing what he saw as an instructor shutting down a discussion against gay marriage. (Mike De Sisti/Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel via AP)

Criticism of college professors based on the political views they express in class and their research is nothing new in American society. As far back as the 1930s there were anti-communist blacklists at the highest levels of academia. Professors have been targeted in other instances, such as when many supported desegregation in the 1960s. In modern times there is another growing trend where professors are harassed for espousing specific views, augmented by technological advances (especially social media sites) that allow an outlet for groups to easily target them.

One of the highest profile cases wherein college professors have been targeted is the so-called “Professor Watchlist”, a site started by a right wing college group called Turning Point USA with a supposed mission to sound the alarm regarding those who “advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.” It has amounted to little more than a rehashing of McCarthyism tactics, with professors being targeted for things like supposedly criticizing capitalism or the NRA. It is necessary to include “supposedly” because many of the professors have disputed  the accounts against them, and some of the sources (like Project Veritas) they cite are very suspect.

Academic freedom is an integral part of the higher education system in this country, and is indeed a critical aspect of free thought in any society. Groups that would attempt to shame those with differing views into silence are a threat to intellectual freedom. And it’s not just the fact the professors are being put onto a list that is a problem. It’s also the trolls on sites like 4chan and Reddit who coordinate harassment by posting the personal information of these professors, as well as the many others who send threatening emails or voice messages.

College professors should not feel terrified that if they say the wrong thing they will be subject to threats, not only to them, but to those close to them. There are legitimate reasons to criticize college professors, for example if they are furthering hateful views against a particular ethnicity. But, generally, political disagreements are not legitimate reasons to ostracize them. If students of a particular professor find out their professors are the subject of such harassment it behooves them not only to discover the truth of accusations but to work to support them if the accusations do not have merit or are not deserving of focus.

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