An Incendiary Social Media Post

Does it always have to be investigated in depth or end a professor’s career? UNC Wilmington doesn’t think so, but a trustee disagrees.

June 30, 2021
 
UNC Wilmington
Dan Johnson

When professors say inflammatory things on social media, institutions often respond by simultaneously distancing themselves from the offensive comments and affirming the faculty members’ right to free expression.

The University of North Carolina at Wilmington walked that line this month, after a professor wrote this terse post on Facebook: “Blow up Republicans.”

According to the university, the professor, Dan Johnson, associate professor of recreation therapy, soon deleted the post and expressed remorse for having written it. He is said to have no history of such posts, and UNCW quickly determined that the comment did not represent a true threat.

The university may have another reason for not wanting to get entangled in another free speech dispute: it’s only been a year since UNCW settled with the late Mike Adams, a professor who for years made controversial statements on social media.

But that’s not the end of the story. The university is now taking heat from a trustee who says that UNCW should investigate the “Blow up Republicans” post further. The trustee, Woody White, also alleges that the university appears to be treating this professor differently than Adams because Adams was a conservative.

“I think it’s too early to determine whether or not it is [protected speech],” White said in a local radio interview this week. The university still needs to ask “very serious questions like a) what caused this to happen, what was it that promulgated this impulsive three-word post, why was it taken down, what happened in the past, what actions are going to be taken to prevent anything happening in the future.”

Most importantly, he continued, “if we have a Republican young person, student, at our campus that wishes to benefit from this type of curriculum for going into a career, how is he or she going to feel safe going into that classroom this year?”

White’s radio comments, to which he referred all questions, followed a letter he sent to UNCW chancellor Jose Sartarelli saying that if “an employee suggested violence and death to fellow Americans, or anyone for that matter, it would be my view that any privacy issues held by the employee would be outweighed by the public interest involved and the greater concern for the welfare of any students and fellow faculty members that he is around.”

Regarding Adams, who died by suicide last summer after having agreed to retire from UNCW with a more than $500,000 settlement, White said on the radio, “You know, Mike Adams never suggested blowing anyone up.”

Adams, a professor of criminology, successfully sued UNCW for denying him promotion to full professor in a long-running case that ended in 2014. More recently, he was criticized for tweeting that North Carolina is a “slave state” run by Democratic governor “Massa [Roy] Cooper,” among various other racially and gender-insensitive remarks. The Cooper comment, about coronavirus restrictions, came four days after George Floyd’s murder.

At the time, the university released a statement alluding to Adams’s comments as “vile” and “reprehensible” but nonetheless free expression.

On Johnson, the university released a statement saying that “Any hateful language by faculty, staff or students aimed at others is contrary to our university values and our commitment to an environment of respect and dignity. It is absolutely reprehensible. However, no matter how upsetting and distasteful such comments may be, they are expressions of free speech and protected by the First Amendment unless they represent a true threat.”

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White said in his interview that Adams “did provoke people and say things to get attention that would be clickbait,” but that that “was his style.” Adams “brought attention to very serious topics,” added White, a lawyer who ran for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives as a Republican in 2014.

On his own Facebook page, White posted that “College campuses should be a place where free expression of all (lawful) points of view are encouraged. The double standard that treats conservative voices differently must end.”

To date, White is the only trustee to formally request an investigation into Johnson’s comments.

Hal Kitchin, chair of UNCW's Board of Trustees, declined comment on the case.

Johnson did not respond to a request for comment. This week, the recreation accessibility nonprofit that he founded, ACCESS Wilmington, announced that he had resigned from its Board of Directors.

Because Johnson hasn’t commented publicly on his case, it’s unclear what prompted his remark. The post was made on May 17 and deleted sometime before the conservative website Campus Reform wrote about it last week.

The American Association of University Professors, among other organizations devoted to academic freedom, supported Adams in his legal case against UNCW. The AAUP recently published a study on Campus Reform that found 40 percent of professors who were the subject of articles on the website said they received threats as a result. And while Campus Reform seeks to expose liberal bias in the classroom, the AAUP found that the majority of its stories were about professors’ social media and otherwise public comments, not what they were alleged to have said in the classroom or published as research.

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