Issues with the First Amendment protecting public institutions

Private institutions have the ability to fire anyone they want for almost any reason. However, public institutions are bound by the First Amendment and the Constitution. With the First Amendment protecting all kinds of speech, this has caused more than a few problems.

Most recently, a professor at Indiana University has been under fire for racist, homophobic, and sexist comments. The professor of business economics and public policy, Eric Rasmusen, has posted and reposted several controversial comments on his various social medias.

Although the school does not condone his behavior and says it does not reflect its value, but he is still protected by the First Amendment. The university has received hundreds of requests for this Rasmusen to be fired, and his tweets have caused an uproar online. Despite all of the pressure to have him fired, the university is unable to fire him for his beliefs.

Provost Lauren Robel has been quoted calling his viewpoints “stunningly ignorant” and  “more consistent with someone who lived in the 18th century than the 21st.” The Dean of the Business school where Rasumusen works also has released a quote saying, “The professor demonstrates a lack of tolerance and respect for women as well as for racial diversity and diversity in sexual orientation. The leadership of the Kelley School (of Business) stands united in condemning the bias and disrespect displayed by this professor; we find his sexist, racist, and homophobic views abhorrent.”

In response to these quotes and general displeasure at his beliefs, Rasmusen said on his blog that both the provost and the dean “overreacted”. So not only does he not see the issues with what he believes in, but he also cannot understand why other people have an issue with it.

The university has taken some actions in response to the influx of complaints they have had against him. They have created alternative classes so that students will never be forced to take a class taught by him and Rasmusen will have to use double-blind grading on assignments to ensure his beliefs do not interfere with his grading.

This opens up the issue with offensive speech being protected under the First Amendment, especially when it comes to schools. If there were any restrictions put in place by the school, it would be considered censorship by the government since it is a public institution.

I am not saying that these restrictions should be put in place for the students, because it is good to know the opinions of your peers, and furthermore have the opportunity to combat it. But when it comes to the professors, who are supposed to be teaching masses of students, it becomes trickier. I feel universities should be allowed to fire professors if they are letting their biases interfere with their teaching and even grading.

The professors at public universities should face the same consequences that those at private universities face when their conduct does not meet the standards of their institution. Although it may be tricky because of government funding, it is more important that students feel safe and equal in an environment where they are trying to learn.

2 thoughts on “Issues with the First Amendment protecting public institutions

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  1. I was reading about this story in the Times and it hyperlinked to a couple other similar stories, one in particular where a professor at the University of Illinois was fired for similarly hateful posts on social media. Their reasoning in that story was that the teacher had become “incapable of fostering a classroom environment where conflicting opinions would be given equal consideration,” and I feel like that should totally apply to your news story too! Voicing your opinion is one thing, but I agree that once a teacher expresses racist/sexist opinion online, it’s impossible to keep those views out of the classroom. I feel like the fact that it started to affect grading and the students feelings of safety, should be grounds for the university to hold a vote or something on whether or not this meets First Amendment standards. It also seems a little ridiculous that they had to use more money and faculty time to set up special new class schedules so students can avoid this teacher––it makes the school seem so powerless and this guy so manipulative of the Constitution.

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  2. Once again, when dealing with free speech issues, it is always worthwhile to flip the participants. Imagine the professor was a liberal professor at a publicly funded- but conservative -school and had shared posts online supporting LGBTQ rights and calling those who disagree bigoted and incapable of critical thought. What if there was a public outcry? What if the community demanded the professor be fired for not upholding Christian values and demeaning Christian students. What if the professors comments might make it uncomfortable for Evangelical students to learn from them? Should the University be able to fire the professor?
    The question is whether these beliefs prevent the professor from performing work. It sounds as though the University has attempted to mitigate harm for students and protect free speech, It also took a stand against his comments. Yes, it does create more work for other faculty and that is a problem. Still, as a professor, I believe the University did the right thing. It is important to recall that such policies can be weaponized against faculty who speak out on controversial matters. There is a chilling effect if faculty fear they can be fired for voicing unpopular ideas- even as I find these ideas both unpopular and morally repugnant.

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