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Can a University Fire a Professor for an Opinion?

Posted by Joseph D. Lento | Jun 28, 2022 | 0 Comments

In 2021, a tenured professor found himself once again in the administration's crosshairs for remarks his students find offensive. Shortly thereafter, the university reopened a 2018 case involving the professor on an unrelated matter, and firedhim.

You may wonder if the university violated the professor's right to free speech, or failed to recognize a statute of limitations on the closed case. But a college or university isn't bound by the same legal constraints as a government. You may also be wondering how a university could fire someone with tenure. In the case of Princeton professor Joshua Katz, this is exactly what happened.

Reopening a Closed Case

The case reopened in 2021, which had been resolved in 2018, involved a consensual relationship between Katz and one of his students in 2006. Policies regarding faculty-student relationships vary from school to school, but at Princeton they're explicitly banned, even when they're consensual. Katz had apologized for violating the university's policy during the 2018 investigation, and the case was closed.

It was reopened in 2021 when the former student, who had declined to be involved in 2018 investigation, came forward with new information. While her Title IX complaint was dismissed on the basis of the relationship's consensual nature, Princeton claimed that Katz had “failed to be straightforward” during the 2018 investigation and fired him. Katz says he learned of the termination after The New York Times contacted his wife for comment.

Did Unpopular Opinions Play a Role Here?

Two years after the case involving the consensual relationship was closed, Katz had published an essay online criticizing a former student group, the Black Justice League. The 2020 essay was considered so inflammatory that it also triggered an investigation by the university. Once again, however, the administration found that, while it took issue with his position, the remarks provided insufficient grounds for removing Katz from the faculty.

While the official reason for firing Katz is that he failed to disclose information about the 2006 relationship during the 2018 investigation, the fact that his views were unpopular with students and university administrators raises questions. Would he have lost his job if his ideas were more in line with theirs?

Universities Make Their Own Rules, and Tenure Isn't a Shield

Katz's case demonstrates that tenure does not provide blanket protection for faculty speech and conduct. Comments by tenured faculty can trigger an official inquiry. Incidents from years or even decades earlier can become grounds for misconduct investigations. Closed cases can be reopened.

The good news is that professors accused of violating university policies are getting some support from federal courts. A federal appeals court in Florida, for example, recently sided with the rights of students and faculty to free expression.

Why You Need Legal Counsel

An accusation of inappropriate behavior or offensive speech can be detrimental to an academic career. If a complaint has been filed against you, bring in an experienced attorney as soon as possible. A team skilled in navigating university disciplinary systems can help you build your case and protect yourself and your career. If you're being targeted because of your beliefs, you need an advocate on your side.

Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm team are highly experienced defenders of students and professors. No matter where you are in the U.S., Mr. Lento will work with you to protect your reputation.

Reach out to our team online, or give us a quick call at 888-535-3686.

About the Author

Joseph D. Lento

"I pride myself on having heart and driving hard to get results!" Attorney Joseph D. Lento passionately fights for the futures of his clients nationwide. Attorney Lento and his team represent students and others in disciplinary cases and various other proceedings at colleges and universities across the United States. Attorney Lento has helped countless students, professors, and others in academia at more than a thousand colleges and universities across the United States, and when necessary, he and his team have sought justice on behalf of clients in courts across the nation. He does not settle for the easiest outcome, and instead prioritizes his clients' needs and well-being. Joseph D. Lento is licensed in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York, is admitted pro hac vice as needed nationwide, and he can help you or your student address any school-related issue or concern anywhere in the United States.

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