Free speech as an academic

In class this past week, the topic of free speech was touched upon. How it is a difficult area to navigate as an employee of a university. Separating your personal beliefs and your representation of your employer. Virginia Tech president Tim Sands was used as an example as a person who has an exceptionally narrow line to walk in regards to the things he says. For him, it would seem to be impossible to express a thought as Tim Sands, and not have that be equated to being the position of the school. I’d like to believe there are things that he personally disagrees with, but has no forum to discuss those issues in. I probably won’t ever want to be that big of a player at a university. However, a recent episode of free speech at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln did involving a graduate student, hits a little closer to where I am in my career.

This episode involved a student advocating for Turning Point USA, an organization that has disagreeable principles with other people. In response to this student’s attempt to recruit new members, other students and a faculty member had a mini-counter protest. Undoubtedly a one versus many scenario would make the one feel uncomfortable, and there were accusations of harassment. What gets this interaction more attention is the fact that some of the accused harassers were employees of the university, including a graduate student. Both parties are entitled to their opinions and the freedom to express them, but it seems that when you are paid by the university you have to play by a different set of rules. As a bit of a shock to myself, the graduate student ended up in a bit of hot water. She wasn’t terminated, but ended up being reassigned to a role that didn’t involve teaching. The reality hasn’t really sunk into my head that even though I perceive myself to be a small fish, my actions may have a broader impact than I might realize. It saddens me some to think that during my career, I may not be able to fully speak my mind or engage in every conversation that I may want to. I don’t want to have to make those decisions of who is talking, me or me on behalf of my employer.

Has anyone had an experience where they have felt strongly enough to say or do something, even though there are potential consequences to your actions? It is a strange line to walk, balancing what you believe to be right versus your career aspirations.


3 Replies to “Free speech as an academic”

  1. I personally believe that if you are paid by the university as an educator (whether graduate student or professor), the college campus is probably not the best place to voice your views and beliefs.

  2. I think this is were our ethics need to kick in. Are our careers more important than speaking up for things we believe in? Are some things like injustice and human rights important enough to jeopardize your career or social life? Is there any line you would cross if it meant termination or career consequences?

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