A professor of biology, Leslie Jones, at Valdosta State University was recently notified that one of her student's parents had complained to the university about how she was teaching the construction of gender in her evolution and diversity course. After the student's father told the dean of VSU that he didn't want his daughter being taught such topics, the dean told Jones to change her approach to the material or be removed from teaching the class. But giving her such an ultimatum violates Professor Jones' First Amendment rights to academic freedom.
First Amendment Right to Academic Freedom
According to the First Amendment, the government cannot control speech unless it falls within certain restrictions of time, place, and manner. The notion of academic freedom was never mentioned and originally was not thought of as a constitutional right. But in 1952, the U.S. Supreme Court began making decisions that interpreted the First Amendment to include the right to academic freedom.
For instance, one of the first cases that verified the right to academic freedom considered whether state college professors who refused to take an oath saying they had never been part of a communist organization could have their salaries blocked by local taxpayers. The Supreme Court stated that unwarranted inhibition of a teacher's free spirit would affect their ability to teach. Teachers must be able to create spaces for free inquiry and open-mindedness so that they can encourage the practice of responsible and critical questioning.
Private vs. Public Colleges and Academic Freedom
Even though most private universities view themselves as supporters of liberal learning, they are not legally obligated to abide by the First Amendment rights of their students on campus. If they do not make a promise to uphold their students' freedom of speech rights in the student handbook (which acts as a binding contract), they will not be made to do so in litigation.
But VSU is a public state college – which means that it is an extension of the government. As such, they must use the time, manner, and place test to determine if speech should be restricted. This test can only be made for content-neutral reasons – they cannot be made because of the message being expressed.
So public universities can decide when and where classes are held, as well as the manner of speech they are taught with, but they do not have the authority to demand that a teacher change the specifics of the material taught or face removal.
How an Attorney Advisor Can Help
Attorney Joseph D. Lento is a skilled attorney advisor who has helped faculty and students around the country navigate attacks on their First Amendment rights. Attorney Lento and the Lento Law Firm understand the obstacles their clients are up against and will work tirelessly to create a strong defense on your behalf that is sure to guarantee you the best possible outcome for your case.
You have the right to free speech, and if you are a professor, this right extends to the academic freedom to teach in whatever manner you deem necessary to promote free thinking. Call the Lento Law Firm at 888-535-3686 today or schedule a consultation online.