The University of Colorado Boulder violated the First Amendment by imposing sanctions on a visiting professor who went viral online. The professor, John Eastman, addressed Trump supporters on January 6 and went viral on Twitter and Facebook.
Critics of the professor’s speech on January 6 claim that he “incited” the rioters. However, the professor’s speech does not qualify as unlawful incitement under the provisions of the First Amendment.
“The First Amendment is clear: A public university cannot cancel a professor’s courses, withdraw his role in organizing campus discussions, and preemptively decline to renew his contract because of public anger over his extramural political expression,” said free speech group FIRE in a statement.
“But that’s exactly what the University of Colorado Boulder did to visiting professor John Eastman after he gave a three-minute speech at then-President Donald Trump’s Jan. 6 rally,” FIRE added.
Therefore, the organization is asking the university to “rescind the unconstitutional sanctions imposed on Eastman.” CU Boulder rescinded Eastman’s responsibilities, canceled his classes, and told him his contract would not be renewed.
In the letter, FIRE noted that, as of January 7, the university’s administration “seemed to understand the law.” In response to calls for the university to take action, Chancellor Philip P. DiStefano referred to a campus policy that states “the university will not censor a faculty member’s political statements or initiate disciplinary action because it disapproves of them.”
DiStefano explained that the policy is borrowed from the First Amendment, adding that he would not “violate the law by removing a visiting professor.”
However, on January 10, the university took punitive action against Eastman, a decision that seems to have been influenced by the backlash from the public. Eastman was also prohibited from engaging in any activity on behalf of the Benson Center at the university, otherwise, he would be charged with “insubordination.”
According to professor Daniel Jacobson, the director of the Benson Center at the university, the decision was influenced by “terrible press,” and pressure from supporters and donors of the Benson Center. The university might have also made the decision to protect its reputation.
“The university’s rationales for punishing professor Eastman are fundamentally at odds with the basic principles of free expression,” wrote FIRE’s Adam Steinbaugh in the letter to CU Boulder.
“If donor interests, public anger, reputation, or administrators’ ire are sufficient to grant the institution the authority to punish members of its faculty, then only speech popular with donors, the public, and administrators is protected. This inverts the purpose of the First Amendment,” he continued.
“Punishing a professor for his protected political speech — including speech that others believe to be wrong or deeply offensive — is the antithesis of the First Amendment’s core aim,” Steinbaugh added.
Eastman was a respected member of Chapman University’s law school. Unlike CU Boulder, Chapman University, in Orange County California, resisted the public pressure to fire Eastman. More than 150 faculty members at Chapman signed a letter calling for the firing of Eastman. However, on January 14, he negotiated a retirement offer with the university.