The University of Tennessee at Knoxville says it’s investigating a law professor’s tweet suggesting that motorists “run down” protesters blocking traffic following a fatal police shooting in Charlotte, N.C. The professor, a popular blogger with the Twitter handle @Instapundit, says he hasn’t been contacted by the university directly, and many free speech advocates say that his remark -- however objectionable -- should be protected.
“He apparently is unaware of how dangerous it is to the driver who runs over a human being, and he is apparently unaware that vehicular homicide is both illegal and evil,” said John K. Wilson, an independent scholar of academic freedom and co-editor of the American Association of University Professors’ “Academe” blog, referring to Glenn Reynolds, the professor in question.
Yet while Reynolds's tweet “is unquestionably stupid and morally repugnant,” Wilson said, “it generally should not be subject to investigation or punishment.” He didn’t threaten a particular person harm, Wilson said, and it “seems his overwrought statement was meant to convey anger with the protesters, not a serious call for violence against them.”
Robert O’Neil, a former president and professor emeritus of law at the University of Virginia who studies the First Amendment, had a similar opinion, saying he’d treat the “arguably tongue-in-cheek tweet as though it had been uttered orally during a rally, or even in print.” That means pausing to recognize its “inherent ambiguity,” as well as Reynolds’s physical distance from the events in Charlotte.
While O’Neil hoped Tennessee wouldn’t sanction Reynolds, he did say that “collegial guidance would certainly be appropriate” -- especially as Reynolds teaches law.
Reynolds, the Beauchamp Brogan Distinguished Professor of Law at Tennessee and moderator of the conservative blog Instapundit, was temporarily blocked from Twitter Wednesday evening after he responded to a tweet from a local news station notifying the public that protesters were stopping traffic and surrounding vehicles on Interstate 277, outside Charlotte. “Run them down,” Reynolds tweeted.
The post immediately caught attention on social media and from news outlets, with many accusing Reynolds of inciting violence toward those demonstrating against the Tuesday shooting death of Keith Lamont Scott by a police officer. Reports vary as to whether or not Scott was armed, and his family, who deny that he was, have linked his death with police shootings of a number of other unarmed black men in recent years.
Reynolds, whose account has since been reinstated, said Twitter asked him to delete the tweet to return to service. He posted the tweet elsewhere lest he be accused of “airbrushing.”
On his blog Thursday, after his tweet attracted attention, Reynolds said, “I’ve always been a supporter of free speech and peaceful protest. … But riots aren’t peaceful protest. And blocking interstates and trapping people in their cars is not peaceful protest -- it’s threatening and dangerous, especially against the background of people rioting, cops being injured, civilian-on-civilian shootings and so on.”
Reynolds “wouldn’t actually aim for people blocking the road,” he wrote, “but I wouldn’t stop, because I’d fear for my safety, as I think any reasonable person would.” He later said that he agreed with a suggestion that “Keep driving” would have been more in line with what he was thinking, but that his tweets “can’t be all be perfect.”
On Thursday, Melanie D. Wilson, dean of Tennessee’s College of Law, posted a statement to the university website saying that she was “aware of the remarks” and of the “serious and legitimate concerns expressed by members of the [law college] family and the University of Tennessee community, as well as concerned citizens across the country.”
Wilson said Reynolds’s comments “do not reflect my views and opinions, nor do they reflect the values of the college and university,” and that she, administrators and faculty members are “investigating this matter.”
While the university is committed to academic freedom and diverse viewpoints, and Wilson and her colleagues support civil disobedience and free speech, she said, “we do not support violence or language that encourages violence. [Reynolds] has built a significant platform to discuss his viewpoints, but his remarks on Twitter are an irresponsible use of his platform.”
Seeming to invoke Reynolds’s status as a teacher, Wilson added that Tennessee law students are to become “not only responsible lawyers, but also responsible global citizens who are able to competently represent people of all backgrounds.”
Via email, Reynolds said he hadn’t been contacted by the university about any investigation, beyond Wilson’s statement. He referred additional questions to Robert Shibley, executive director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, who could not immediately be reached for comment.
A university spokesperson confirmed that Tennessee is investigating the case. “University administrators, as well as the College of Law dean and faculty, are discussing a number of issues related to the tweet,” she said via email.
On Thursday evening, Reynolds published an apology in USA Today, where is a contributor; the newspaper promptly said it was suspending his column. "Wednesday night one of my 580,000 tweets blew up," Reynolds wrote said. "I didn’t live up to my own standards, and I didn’t meet USA Today’s standards. For that I apologize, to USA Today readers and to my followers on social media."
Hans-Joerg Tiede, associate secretary for tenure, governance and academic freedom at AAUP, said what matters is that any question of whether Reynolds's tweets merit discipline should be referred to a faculty committee.
AAUP’s statement on extramural utterances -- those outside of teaching or research -- says that the “controlling principle is that a faculty member’s expression of opinion as a citizen cannot constitute grounds for dismissal unless it clearly demonstrates the faculty member’s unfitness to serve. Extramural utterances rarely bear upon the faculty member’s fitness for continuing service. Moreover, a final decision should take into account the faculty member’s entire record as a teacher and scholar.”
Of course, referrals to a faculty committee don’t always happen. Steven Salaita was famously “unhired” by University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2014 for his anti-Israel tweets -- which some said incited violence -- absent a faculty review. A key difference between that case and Reynolds is that Salaita hadn't quite started his job, and Reynolds is a chaired professor. AAUP censured the university over the incident, and Illinois eventually settled a lawsuit alleging breach of contract and First Amendment violations with Salaita.
Reynolds’s case also recalls that of David Guth, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Kansas who was suspended from teaching prior to a faculty review for tweeting the following after the 2013 shooting at the Navy Yard in Washington: “The blood is on the hands of the #NRA. Next time, let it be YOUR sons and daughters.”
Critics said Guth was advocating more violence. FIRE argued that his speech was protected, and Guth said at the time that he didn't wish gun violence on anyone but that "if it does happen again -- and it likely will -- may it happen to those misguided miscreants who suggest that today's death toll at the Navy Yard would have been lower if the employees there were allowed to pack heat." He was allowed to return to teaching, but the Kansas Board of Regents ultimately approved a new policy limiting what employees may say on social media. The move was panned by First Amendment advocates, but the regents argued the new policy would better facilitate free speech.