After AFA Intervention, Two Universities Decline to Sanction Professors Over Speech

May 5, 2021 | Press Release

May 5, 2021

After AFA Intervention, Two Universities Decline to Sanction Professors Over Speech

The Universities of San Diego and Rhode Island abandoned investigations of professors under fire for constitutionally protected speech

PRINCETON, NJ – The Academic Freedom Alliance (AFA), founded in March by more than 200 faculty across the U.S., announced today the successful conclusion of two cases in which it intervened on behalf of professors facing threats of termination over constitutionally protected speech. Yesterday, the University of San Diego declined to take disciplinary action against Professor Tom Smith over his criticisms of China. Earlier this week, the University of Rhode Island dropped its proceedings against Professor Donna Hughes over her comments about gender and sexuality.

“We can think of no better way to celebrate the two-month anniversary of the AFA’s founding than to have our first two cases resolved successfully,” said Keith Whittington, chair of the AFA’s Academic Committee. “These investigations should never have been launched to begin with, but we are pleased that Professors Smith and Hughes can now move on with their scholarship. These victories seemed unlikely just days ago, and they provide powerful proof of concept for the solidarity and legal defense provided by the AFA.”

University of San Diego Case:

Professor Tom Smith of the University of San Diego (USD) faced an outcry from student groups after his March 10, 2021 blog post about the Chinese government’s handling of COVID-19. Professor Smith’s status at USD was placed “under review” while the university conducted an unwarranted, six-week internal investigation into his comments, which was a gross violation of his contractual rights as a tenured member of the law school faculty.

The AFA released a statement of solidarity with Professor Smith on March 22, and doubled down this week by providing funding for his legal defense. It also worked closely with experienced free speech attorney Samantha Harris in her representation of Professor Smith, and was proud to join with others in denouncing USD for its conduct in this matter.

“I am pleased that USD has concluded that my blog is protected by the First Amendment, although any law student who had taken first year Constitutional Law should have been able to tell them that,” said Professor Smith. “I was fortunate that the Academic Freedom Alliance had just been formed before I became the latest target of campus activists. The Academic Freedom Alliance does critical work in defending against administrators and students who forget that we live in a country that doesn’t just prize freedom of speech but protects it with the force of law.”

University of Rhode Island Case:

On February 28, 2021, Professor Donna Hughes of the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Rhode Island published a controversial essay on gender identity to the feminist website 4W, prompting calls for her resignation by student groups and other activists. Professor Hughes was subjected to an unnecessary investigation and threats of disciplinary action.

Following a letter to the University and legal funding from the Academic Freedom Alliance, and with representation from Samantha Harris, the university abandoned its investigation of Hughes this week and recognized the academic freedom of its faculty.

“It has been an honor to be involved in AFA’s first successful case defending free speech on campus,” said Professor Hughes. “We are sending an important message to all academics in the U.S.: You have the right of free speech on campus, and you can win against the cancel mob if you stand your ground and get good representation. I couldn’t have done it without the expertise of attorney Samantha Harris, and the support and financial backing of the Academic Freedom Alliance.”

The Academic Freedom Alliance is a diverse alliance of college and university faculty members who are dedicated to upholding the principles of academic freedom and professorial free speech. These principles are central to the mission of our institutions of higher education for the pursuit of truth and knowledge. The AFA is committed to defending universal principles of academic freedom and will come to the assistance of professors regardless of their individual views. The Academic Freedom Alliance itself takes no position on the merits of the substantive content of faculty speech or writing.


Learn More About the Academic Freedom Alliance

No one, at any academic institution, should fear suppression or retaliation for speaking out publicly in any form. We encourage you to join the movement in supporting the flourishing of intellectual life and the pursuit of knowledge and truth at institutions of higher learning.