Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk’s website The Professor Watchlist created a social-media stir, causing public backlash against the network for being “McCarthy-like” and “Orwellian“.  However, the site’s existence prompts broader discussion about professorial speech.  Two important questions to consider are:  

  1. What are the limitations on a professor’s free speech?
  2. Do colleges harbor dangerous people intent on undermining America?

Many think these questions should not be entertained.  However before dismissing them we should examine the facts.  And the facts suggest there are limitations on free speech even for professors.

Consider the standard answer to question 1.  Typically people cite “free speech” and think professors can say anything.  That’s not true.  There are numerous Supreme Court cases imposing limitations on speech rights.  Two important cases pertain to this discussion.

In Schenck v. United States, the Supreme Court determined if “ words … are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger” then a citizen’s first amendment rights are not protected.

In Brandenburg v. Ohio the court developed “a two pronged test to evaluate speech acts that (1) speech can be prohibited if it is ‘directed at inciting or producing imminent lawless action” and (2) it is ‘likely to incite or produce such action.’”  Accordingly free speech protection is forfeited if and only if both conditions are violated.

With this in mind lets look at what’s going on in university system:

Despite the vulgarity of the ideas expressed, nothing above violates Supreme Court case law.  But it gets worse and even dangerous.  For example:

  • Barash and Webel excuse terrorists’ behavior in their Peace and Conflict student textbook : ”Terrorists’ are people who… feel militarily unable to confront … perceived enemies directly and … accordingly use violence … against noncombatants to achieve… political aims”
  • James Pearce calls for the murder of NRA members at their headquarters.
  • Dana Cloud pledges allegiance to “Iraq, Palestine and Afghanistan and … their struggles to … resist … the economic and environmental ruin wrought by global capitalism”
  • Erik Loomis calls for the beheading of NRA activist Wayne LaPierre.
  • David Guth publicly expresses the wish that NRA members’ children should be killed in retaliation for the Navy Yard shooting.
  • Jared Benson implicates the Constitution is politically illegitimate since the Founding Fathers were terrorists.
  • Charles Angeletti forces students to renounce allegiance to the US and recite a pledge to Communists and illegal immigrants.

Now is there a problem with professorial speech?  Do these speech acts demonstrate imminent lawless action?  Do professors words facilitate violence?  What do you think?

In the author’s opinion, these professors’ actions should elicit bipartisan concern.  Without enforcing existing speech law, or without professors voluntarily exercising the same prudent speech restraint they expect from students, it becomes difficult to think universities are actually protecting their students.