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A photograph of Michigan Technological University's campus.

Michigan Technological University ranked No. 1 in the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression’s latest College Free Speech Rankings.

Michigan Technological University

A free expression group is criticizing the university it ranked No. 1 nationally for student free speech after that same university allegedly punished a professor for using his own speech to criticize a student demonstration.

Carl Blair, a teaching professor in Michigan Technological University’s social sciences department, says Michigan Tech removed him from teaching one of his classes and barred him from contacting students enrolled in it. The public university allegedly did this last month after a national conservative group with campus chapters posted online an audio clip of him during a class, purportedly calling members of that group homophobic, dumb and racist.

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, which gave Michigan Tech the top spot on its latest College Free Speech Rankings in September, sent a letter last week to the university advocating for Blair and the free speech rights of his colleagues.

Asked if the situation is ironic, Anne Marie Tamburro, a lawyer at FIRE, told Inside Higher Ed, “I wish I could say it was surprising, but the reality is that, right now, it’s just a pretty terrible time for free speech on college campuses. I think this is certainly reflected by the news cycle.”

“At FIRE, if a school is engaging in conduct that violates its constituents’ rights, we hold them to the same standard—whether they are at the bottom of our free speech ranking or at the top of it,” Tamburro said.

FIRE’s bottom-ranked university is Harvard, which has seen multiple recent controversies in which it’s been accused of limiting free speech. Ironically, it’s now receiving national condemnation because, in a U.S. House committee hearing last week, its president seemed to say Harvard students have so much freedom of speech that they can advocate for the genocide of Jews.

The Michigan Tech controversy isn’t focused on the Israel-Palestine conflict, which has ignited debate about the limits of free speech as protests and counterprotests and controversial student and faculty statements roil campus after campus. Instead, this issue centers on unspecified student statements, written on a Young Americans for Freedom prop, about gender—for years a contentious issue in higher education—and a faculty member’s alleged response to them.

In perhaps further ironies, FIRE and Blair say Michigan Tech—which responded to Inside Higher Ed’s requests for interviews with a two-sentence statement that didn’t confirm or deny the whole situation—removed Blair from the Global Issues classroom for a short aside that ended with him defending student free speech. And the group he purportedly criticized calls itself an advocate for freedom, though it celebrated when Blair was allegedly removed from the classroom.

Young America’s Foundation, the parent organization of the Young Americans for Freedom campus chapters, posted Nov. 14 on X and its website a 90-second recording of Blair allegedly telling his class that something involved “childish, stupid, homophobic, dumb, racist twits.”

The snippet doesn’t indicate what Blair is referencing, but the foundation—a decades-old conservative group that also maintains the Reagan Ranch in California—says it was a demonstration from its Michigan Tech chapter, during which the chapter erected a miniature Berlin Wall replica on campus last month and students covered it with graffiti. Young Americans for Freedom chapters at multiple colleges have built these replicas and torn them down.

“NOT A FAN OF FREEDOM,” in all caps, begins the headline of an article on the foundation’s website about Blair’s alleged comments. The article says Blair “apparently takes issue with celebrating the freeing of millions of people from an oppressive regime” and says it’s “unclear why Dr. Blair feels that the YAF chapter’s project was hateful.”

The audio clip doesn’t make clear why the Berlin Wall replica might have been homophobic or racist, or even whether Blair was actually referring to it. But the local Daily Mining Gazette newspaper reported that the wall had “multiple anti-transgender statements” on it and attracted a student counterprotest over those statements and others.

The audio clip goes on to include Blair saying he and others were “going to minimize our response, because there are, quite bluntly, certain faculty members who are hoping that the students will be censored for this because then they can go off and pretend [here he switched to a mocking falsetto], ‘Oh, we’re victims! You’re restricting our, you know, freedom of speech, we have a constitutional right to be insulting, violent and threatening.’”

“Strictly speaking, they’re right,” he adds. “They didn’t target a single student, just groups. It was wrong, it was tacky—it’s not illegal.”

On Nov. 16, two days after Young America’s Foundation shared the audio clip online— and the same day that Fox News posted an article on the audio clip—university provost Andrew Storer sent Blair a letter saying he was being removed from the course for the rest of this semester, according to FIRE.

“You have created an environment in which students may not feel comfortable sharing or discussing their diverse perspectives nor may they feel confident that they will be assessed or graded fairly or impartially,” Storer wrote, according to FIRE’s letter.

In a follow-up article on its website, with a headline beginning with “GONE” in all caps, Young America’s Foundation quoted the head of its Michigan Tech chapter. “We’re very glad that the university is standing up for free speech and won’t back down even when professors go against it,” said Andrew Keys, the chapter chairman.

The foundation and its Michigan Tech chapter didn’t return requests for comment Friday.

Blair said in a brief email to Inside Higher Ed that the audio “is way out of context and doctored,” but he didn’t elaborate and didn’t agree to an interview.

‘Wild West’

FIRE’s letter to Michigan Tech, which Tamburro wrote, says Storer subsequently wrote in a message that faculty members speak “as representatives of the university in their classrooms—not in their individual capacity.” Storer wasn’t available for an interview by deadline for this story, a Michigan Tech spokesman told Inside Higher Ed.

Storer’s message, confirmed to Inside Higher Ed by a social sciences faculty member who wished to remain anonymous, also said instruction must be “respectful.” Without mentioning Blair, it broadly references instances where an “instructor makes derogatory statements” that “may cause reasonable students to not feel comfortable sharing or discussing their diverse perspectives” or “question if they will be graded fairly.”

Tamburro said Storer’s message betrayed the university’s own stated obligation to protect free expression.

“When faculty speak in the classroom, they accordingly do so within their own First Amendment rights and not on behalf of their university,” she wrote to Michigan Tech. Tamburro added that “subjective civility norms” that administrators impose on faculty members risk “abuse via selective punishment of faculty who express disfavored viewpoints.”

She also wrote that a “90-second aside, absent additional misconduct, does not appear serious enough to justify removing Blair from his course. It is difficult to see how sanctioning Blair’s speech, for the reasons Storer gave, does not reduce to what is effectively a rule that faculty may never criticize how students comport themselves.”

The letter requests that the university provide a “substantive response” to FIRE by Tuesday.

A Michigan Tech spokesman wrote to Inside Higher Ed that “the university does not comment on personnel matters” and pointed to the three-paragraph-long academic freedom section of its Faculty Handbook.

“The rights of faculty members to undertake scholarly approaches to their disciplines in accordance with professional standards in the classroom, in the laboratory, and in publications are guaranteed,” one of those paragraphs says. “Likewise, the rights of students to question, without fear of reprisal, the positions and points of view espoused by faculty must be assured.”

Tamburro said Blair “took the opportunity to engage in protected speech to criticize” the Young Americans for Freedom students—an example of the “more speech” route that FIRE and other First Amendment advocates prefer to censorship. She said student and faculty free speech rights “aren’t in competition with each other; they can co-exist perfectly fine” and work together to benefit the academic environment.

Jonathan Friedman, director of free expression and education programs at PEN America, said situations such as the one at Michigan Tech can create a chilling effect on faculty members. “It’s very worrisome for professors to be teaching classes where they have been given the premise that they have academic freedom,” he said, “but simultaneously are seeing the news or getting the message that some snippet of what they say in class could go viral and they could find themselves in hot water.”

The Michigan Tech issue and others like it appear to be “shrouded in arbitrary decision-making,” Friedman said. He said he thinks that university administrators’ free speech regulation, when it’s often unclear what policies they’re using, amount to a kind of “Wild West in higher education.” But, he also said, “I think it is really difficult to come up with hard-and-fast rules.”

“I worry about the implication sometimes that it would be so easy to determine, you know, where this line is,” he said.

Blair’s purported statements to his class suggested the whole controversy, even before his punishment, was a waste of time. He allegedly told students that college should be a place to learn and experience new things “rather than wasting your time having to address idiots.”

The audio clip ends with “There are idiots out there. I’m sorry, that’s life.”

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