The Importance of Being Earnest: Professor Suspended for Dismissing a False Racial Incident

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Theater professor Dr. Steven Earnest of Coastal Carolina University is the latest faculty member to face suspension for expressing a dissenting view on campus. What is notable about this case is that students are demanding his termination because he failed to show sufficient empathy over a mistaken racial incident.

The controversy began on September 16th when students came into a classroom and found names written on a board. The names were recognized as being students of color. Students organized a protest over minority students being singled out for an unknown nefarious purpose.

In reality, the names were written on the board by a visiting artist who was responding to a minority student who said that she felt isolated. The artist listed other students of color in the theater department as a resource for the student.  They left the names on the board.

Despite the fact that this was an effort at positive reenforcement, the University still apologized to the student body for the incident. The visiting artist also apologized for her “thoughtless and careless” action.

Earnest, however, voiced a dissenting view in response to an email from the Department of Theatre’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee apologizing to the student body: “Sorry but I dont think its a big deal. I’m just sad people get their feelings hurt so easily. And they are going into Theatre?”

Students learned of the email and declared Earnest either racist or racially insensitive. They demanded that he be fired. Rather than supporting his right to free speech and academic freedom, the dean of Coastal Carolina’s College of Humanities and Fine Arts, Claudia Bornholdt, reportedly ordered Earnest to stay out of his classroom. He was then suspended.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) issued a letter to the university to object that Earnest was being fired for being insufficiently upset by the incident.

I can understand that some students may have felt offended by the email, but Earnest has a right to express his view of the incident — just as they do.

Notably, the university is a public university in South Carolina. Thus, the First Amendment applies directly to this dispute.

Moreover, the faculty manual expressly guarantees:

“Coastal Carolina University adheres in principle to the American Association of University Professors’ Statements of Academic Freedom and its policy to defend academic freedom against any encroachment. The University, as a center of learning, depends upon the free search for truth and its free dissemination. The University has adopted both of the following statements: the AAUP report, “Freedom in the Classroom,” and the AAUP’s 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure.

Faculty members of Coastal Carolina University are entitled to full freedom in research and in the publication of the results subject to the adequate performance of their other academic duties. However, research for pecuniary return will be based upon an understanding with the authorities of the institution. Faculty members are entitled to freedom in the classroom to discuss their subjects but should not introduce controversial material which has no relation to the subject.”

The action taken against Professor Earnest runs contrary to both the First Amendment and the AAUP principles formally adopted by the university.

These students fail to see that defending free speech is a protection of not just the right of Professor Earnest to speak but their right to denounce such speech.

Oscar Wilde wrote in The Importance of Being Earnest that “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.” That is why we protect a diversity of viewpoints to allow the truth to emerge through the crucible of free speech. 

Source: Jonathan Turley

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