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Firing of Bakersfield College Prof. Conflates Protected and Unprotected Speech

PEN America said today Bakersfield College appears to have “blurred the lines” between protected speech and conduct that might be grounds for investigation or even termination by its decision to fire Matthew Garrett, a tenured professor who co-founded a campus free speech group.

Garrett was fired last month for what campus administrators say was, among other things, “immoral” and “unprofessional” conduct, “dishonesty,” and “unsatisfactory performance.” Garrett claims he is being targeted for protected speech. Garrett is the co-founder of the Renegade Institute for Liberty, a group that says it promotes free speech and viewpoint diversity but that has been controversial on campus and on social media.

19-page report from the college details allegations against Garrett such as holding an in-person event in violation of COVID-19 protocols, cursing at a colleague, and sending a potentially threatening email to a trustee. However, the report also includes as grounds for dismissal numerous instances of Garrett expressing his views through the exercise of free speech, such as penning an op-ed, distributing a flier, and posting on social media. The report characterizes these and a range of other comments in general terms as “uncivil,” public “attacks” on the college and vague actions that made students and colleagues “feel unsafe.” 

In response, Jeremy C. Young, senior manager of free expression and education at PEN America, issued the following statement:

“Universities should never throw the kitchen sink at faculty in an attempt to silence them. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what seems to have happened in Matthew Garrett’s case. Bakersfield College administrators are blurring the lines between conduct that might be genuine grounds for investigation or termination, and speech that quite clearly is not. Professors should not be disciplined or terminated for their political opinions or for commentary critical of their institutions. And the report cites some truly head-scratching supposed policy violations: claiming that Garrett stating on a radio show that the college wanted “to quiet him” was a false statement and thus grounds for termination, or that when he asked for clarification of the charges against him, the request “was not made in good faith” and therefore “demonstrates unprofessionalism.”

Young continued: “As we have seen in the Amy Wax case at the University of Pennsylvania School of Law, the inclusion in such a report of spurious speech-related charges alongside more legitimate, job-related concerns muddies the waters and makes it more difficult to assess whether discipline is warranted. The inclusion in the claims against Garrett of speech expressing his political views and critiques of the college also risks having a broad chilling effect on other faculty who would have reasonable grounds to fear that their protected speech may be used against them in a disciplinary hearing. In making the case for faculty discipline, university administrators should take care to cite only allegations that would actually merit that discipline, not those that constitute free expression. Otherwise, they put academic freedom itself at risk.”

Read entire article at PEN America