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The Duck Quacks at Twilight

A Different Take on the URI Statement 2.0

December 25, 2012

Kindred Winecoff disagrees that this was a modest victory:

I must completely disagree with his (“modest”) level of satisfaction. This represents no victory at all because this new statement from URI officials, like the first one, completely misses the point. This is not about First Amendment rights. Nobody was saying that Loomis should be thrown into the deepest darkest dungeon never to be heard from again. They were saying that he should be fired or otherwise professionally damaged for an emotional — and politically motivated — response to a mass killing.

The relevant standard here is academic freedom, not First Amendment rights. The University of Rhode Island subscribes to the 1940 “Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure” issued by the American Association of University Professors. This Statement indicates that Loomis deserves the full support of the University of Rhode Island even if he was speaking under the banner of the University. (Which he always is, implicitly, contra the views of the CT commenters.) Instead of espousing that principle, which is fundamental to the mission of public universities, the University has repudiated it by saying that Loomis deserves no greater protection than those who have written to the University on this matter, whether in solidarity with or opposition to Loomis.

I don’t strongly disagree with Kindred that the “First Amendment” frame misses a great deal. Indeed, the first draft of my post included a much longer “on the one hand” that criticized Dr. Dooley and his office for focusing so much on Erik’s constitutional right to free speech. I deleted those lines for a few reasons.

First, as URI is a public institution the issue of first-amendment rights does seem somewhat relevant.

Second, the AAUP’s statement on academic freedom is a bit less clear-cut than Kindred suggests. Loomis’ comments on the NRA are pretty distant from his academic work. The nature of the activity in question would seem to fall under the third clause of the AAUP’s statement, which focuses on the rights of academics as citizens to engage in the public arena. It also reads that academics have a special responsibility not to be, more or less, intemperate. In that sense, the URI statement might be suboptimal, but it is reasonable.

Third, even if we accept Kindred’s position arguendo then I still believe that the second URI statement constitutes a “modest victory.” Why? Because the three biggest flaws in the first statement were (a) the insinuation that Erik was advocating or engaging in violent acts, (b) the disrespect of Erik’s position and credentials, and (c) the fact that the administration refused to back a professor currently receiving actual death threats and other forms of harassment for incontrovertibly fallacious reasons.  Version 2.0 tacitly admits that they screwed up with respect to (a), corrects (b), and, whatever the justification, defends Erik’s right to speak his mind–and therefore moves in the right direction on (c).

Given all these factors, I felt it important to note some of the more straightforward limitations of URI’s second statement and then, in effect, call it a day. The next step is to monitor URI closely around the time of Erik’s tenure decision. If he’s denied tenure, but has a strong prima facie case for meeting URI’s standards, then it will be time to mobilize again.



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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.