Opinion: UD’s Illegal ideological censorship
The University of Delaware has a long history of infringing on academic freedom and the free speech of its faculty and students. In 1976, UD President Arthur Trabant fired theater professor Richard Aumiller for publicly defending homosexuality. A federal judge, ruling that Trabant had violated Aumiller’s academic freedom, fined not only the university, but also Trabant personally. In another well-known episode, for several years in the early 1990’s UD made strenuous efforts to block the research funding of two professors, Jan Blits and Linda Gottfredson. Its stated reason: the granting agency, the Pioneer Fund, had an ideology inconsistent with the university’s own. Again the censorship effort failed in the legal process. Apparently, however, some UD administrators have learned nothing from UD’s disgraceful history of ideological censorship. On the contrary, they now send armed police to suppress ideas they do not like. At UD, “thought police” is now not a metaphor, but a literal fact.
A few weeks ago, José-Luis Riera, interim vice president for student life, and Carol Henderson, vice provost for diversity, emailed students and faculty to report that UD police had taken down campus posters with the slogan “It’s okay to be white.” Riera and Henderson believed that this message was part of a “white nationalist” campaign designed to “spread an agenda of hate” and “to pit people on various points of the political spectrum against one another.” This last phrase, of course, merely describes the essence of political debate. Is the goal of Riera and Henderson to suppress political debate and eliminate all differences of opinion on campus?
The email from Riera and Henderson makes clear that the posters were torn down because of their specific ideological content – not, as a UD spokeswoman told the Newark Post, because “permission is needed to hang anything on school property.” And the same spokeswoman confirmed that police removed the posters without knowing whether they were put up by “someone affiliated with the university” (PostNov. 9, 2018, p. 4).
While the slogan “It’s okay to be white” may be simplistic and childish (and even offensive to some), nevertheless it is protected speech under the U.S. Constitution. As the US Supreme Court has often repeated, the “bedrock” principle of the First Amendment forbids government — including state universities — from declaring certain ideas to be heresies. Viewpoint discrimination by government is illegal in a public forum, and that includes policies that require prior permission for speech if such permission is refused to speakers with certain views. We do not know Riera and Henderson’s job descriptions. However, they cannot include censoring certain viewpoints from expression on campus, since that is flatly illegal for a state university. And the use of armed police to do this job is especially shocking.
All students and faculty should zealously guard their constitutional rights of free speech and academic freedom against illegal UD administrative censorship. According to 42 U.S.C. §1983, university officials – such as Riera, Henderson, and police chief Patrick Ogden – can be held personally liable for violating these rights. Moreover, conspiring to violate someone’s constitutional rights is a federal crime under 18 U.S.C. §241. Any student or professor who believes that UD has violated his or her right to free speech should contact Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) at thefire.org for advice and assistance.
Christopher Boorse, Professor of Philosophy
Sheldon D. Pollack, Professor of Law and Legal Studies
Katherin Rogers, Professor of Philosophy