Professor's Incendiary Rhetoric in the Age of Donald Trump

Rutgers places adjunct on leave for Twitter comments that he says were modeled on (and a critique of) the pro-gun rhetoric of the president-elect -- and that he says never should have been taken literally.

November 21, 2016
 
Kevin Allred

Kevin Allred, an adjunct in women's and gender studies at Rutgers University, has been placed on leave and barred from teaching amid a controversy over his comments on Twitter -- comments some say are threats of violence and others say are clearly rhetoric used to criticize President-elect Donald Trump.

Rutgers informed the New York City Police Department of concerns about Allred last week (he lives in New York City), and police officers took him for a psychological evaluation and then released him. He was also told by Twitter that he had to remove a tweet that is apparently at the root of the controversy. Allred wrote on Twitter that he is not talking to the press now, although he has continued to make points about the incident on Twitter.

The tweet in question said: "Will the Second Amendment be as cool when I buy a gun and start shooting at random white people or no …?"

The Second Amendment assures Americans of "the right of the people to keep and bear arms," and Allred and supporters have noted that he was responding after the election to rhetoric used by Trump during the campaign.

In an August speech to a pro-gun audience, Trump warned that Hillary Clinton could appoint judges who would limit access to guns. He then went on to say, “If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks …. Although the Second Amendment people -- maybe there is, I don’t know.” In a January speech, Trump gave this hypothetical: "I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose voters."

Many on social media have demanded that Allred be fired -- and others have sent letters to Rutgers urging that course of action. Many of these communications quote Allred's tweet without noting what he has tweeted to be the context.

Allred, on his website, describes himself as "a feminist author, educator and undoer of the status quo. A shameless outlaw of academia, he believes that everyone -- not just the gatekeepers of the ivory tower -- should have access to knowledge and education." And he says that his mission "is to facilitate conversations about alternative narratives, histories and ideologies that confront mainstream America’s current definition of 'normal.'"

In teaching at Rutgers, Allred is best known for creating the course Politicizing Beyoncé, which explores the singer's work and career along with the works of modern black feminists bell hooks and Alice Walker and the abolitionist Sojourner Truth. When the course appeared to have been dropped for this semester, many fans of Allred and Beyoncé protested and the course survived, although it was moved to a new department.

Rutgers released a brief statement about Allred, declining to answer questions. The statement, in full, said, "We will not comment on the specifics of an individual personnel matter. As a general rule, however, when the university is presented with allegations of threats to public safety, we take those allegations very seriously and have an obligation to investigate. Mr. Allred -- a part-time lecturer -- has been placed on administrative leave and will therefore not be teaching."

Many online comments have attacked Allred and praised Rutgers for reporting concerns about him to the New York City police. One comment on the website of the Rutgers student newspaper: "And yet another misguided lib who has bought into the absurd claim by the left that all of America is racist, sexist, homophobic … ad infinitum. He should not have been hauled off for evaluation, but in reality, attitudes like his are what awakened most of Middle America, who en masse decided it was time to push back against this foolishness."

David M. Hughes, a professor of anthropology at Rutgers and president of the faculty union there (affiliated with both the American Association of University Professors and the American Federation of Teachers) said via email, "It would be both a violation of Kevin Allred's privacy rights and irresponsible, at this time, to reveal details of his case. The union has been in touch with Kevin Allred, naturally, [and] has every interest in defending our members' academic freedom and free speech."

Robert L. Shibley, executive director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said via email, "Given that the NYPD and the mental health authorities appear to have determined that this was hyperbolic speech and not a true threat, it's hard to see what justification Rutgers has for removing him from teaching. While Rutgers is free to express its disagreement with Allred's speech, it cannot, as a public university bound by the First Amendment, punish him for controversial speech."

John K. Wilson, an independent scholar who has written extensively on academic freedom and on President-elect Trump, said that placing Allred on leave raises serious concerns.

He compared the case to that of David W. Guth, a tenured journalism professor at the University of Kansas who was suspended from his job in 2013 over a tweet he wrote after a shooting in the Washington Navy Yard. "#NavyYardShooting The blood is on the hands of the #NRA. Next time, let it be your sons and daughters. Shame on you. May God damn you," said the tweet.

In both cases, Wilson said, the relevant issue shouldn't be rhetoric that references violence, but actual intent to commit violence, which Wilson said was lacking both times.

"The key issue for a threat is whether it is serious and directed, that is, whether it is an actual threat," Wilson said via email. "Hypothetical discussions about whether support for the Second Amendment has a racial component do not constitute an actual threat." He said that Allred's tweet was not the same as if he had said, "I'm going to start shooting at random white people."

Added Wilson, "Allred has already passed a mental health examination, and his comments cannot reasonably be interpreted as a direct threat to murder white people. That means his suspension by Rutgers is not rationally based on any physical threat he poses, but instead is based on the political offensiveness of his expression."

Academics who disagree with Donald Trump or the National Rifle Association are not the only ones who sometimes find themselves in hot water over their comments on social media that some read as literal.

Glenn Reynolds, a popular conservative blogger (known as Instapundit), was subject to an investigation by the University of Tennessee at Knoxville law school, where he teaches, over a tweet in September about people in Charlotte, N.C., who were blocking traffic to protest a fatal police shooting. The tweet: "Run them down." The reaction was intense, in part because many of the protesters were black, leading critics to view the tweet as a call to injure some of them. Many others said that, however much they were offended by the tweet, it could not be taken as a literal call to run down the protesters. (The law school, after its investigation, concluded that the remark was protected free speech.)

Wilson, quoted above, was among those saying that Reynolds should not be investigated over a tweet, just as he is saying about Allred.

Not everyone is so consistent. When Reynolds was investigated, The Daily Caller mocked the idea that his comments on Twitter warranted an inquiry. "How does one investigate a tweet, you ask? Well, one doesn’t. It’s a tweet," said the article. When the website learned about Allred's situation, also over a tweet, the headline was "A Rutgers Prof Got So Irate About Trump That Police Tested His Sanity," and the article talked about how Allred "began to go off the rails on Twitter, tweeting his desire to kill white people."

Please follow me @scottjaschik.

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