Calls to take disciplinary action againstand even fireprofessors for saying controversial things have become disconcertingly common. Students, administrators, and sometimes even faculty colleagues demand that a professor be punished for expressing dissent publiclyand even privatelyfrom certain widely held views on campus. Politicians and political activists have also gotten into the act, sometimes insisting that a professor be fired before the sun goes down.
Apparently it is not enough to criticize or ignore remarks that are considered to be offensive or inflammatory. The sinner must be hauled before a tribunal, made to recant, disciplined, or even removed from the campus.
Many professors have no idea what to do when a mob is howling for their heads. They have never been through such an ordeal before, and are naturally frightened and rattled. Fortunately, many American colleges and universities have policies in place to protect the academic freedom of research scholars and instructional faculty members. Moreover, some professors have the benefit of tenure protections that can hamper administrative attempts to summarily dismiss them, if only to placate the mob.
But those protections are not enough if academics do not know how to make use of them, or if they make mistakes in the heat of the moment that can undermine their legal position. And rules are only as good as the people who apply them.
Faculty members who find themselves on this unfamiliar terrain need a first-aid kit to minimize the damage until they are able to secure legal assistance to help them navigate the perils of a free-speech controversy. In some cases, self-help will be sufficient to weather the storm. In others, professors will need to prepare for a longer fight in order to keep their jobs and their professional standing.