Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Professor's suspension tramples free speech

September 5, 2013

Students have a right to be offended by English professor William Penn’s comments against Republicans. So do university leaders.

But no one — no matter their position of power — should be able to take away his right to free speech.

The video of Penn’s “rant,” captured on a student’s cell phone camera, was first published by the conservative website CampusReform.org. As of Thursday night, it received more than 100,000 views on YouTube and coverage from national news sources.

“They don’t want to pay taxes because they have already raped this country and gotten everything out of it they possibly could,” Penn said of Republicans.

We cannot claim to agree with Penn’s comments, particularly about rape. Comparing a political party to such a heinous, devastating crime is distasteful, as university officials have said.

However by suspending Penn, President Lou Anna K. Simon, Acting Provost June Youatt, MSU Trustee Mitch Lyons and other top officials showed they care more about avoiding controversy than preserving the principles that have guided MSU for the last 158 years.

When The State News reached Penn on the phone, the nationally-acclaimed author said the provost had told him to “keep a lid on it.”

That is unacceptable. Faculty and students deserve better.

University campuses have long been a sacred forum for the open exchange of ideas. Tenure exists to protect professors from being punished for sharing their beliefs.

These values are not to protect the faculty — they exist so students are exposed a variety of viewpoints. Absent this, a college education becomes two-dimensional. To learn, we must step outside our own understanding. Penn’s publicized suspension will hurt more than just him. It will have a chilling effect across campus; professors and students will have reason to worry every time they voice an opinion that might be controversial.

Who will they try to muzzle next? The Wells Hall preachers? Student activists? This editorial page?

Penn’s suspension is clearly political. The controversy only started with Lyons — a Republican — stoking the fire on Twitter of all places.

“Check out this rant by a MSU professor,” Lyons tweeted yesterday. “Do u think this has a place in our public university? #ithinknot.”

The trustees oversee all university operations, including top-level administrators who chose to suspend Penn the day after Lyons spoke out. The choice was clearly driven by political pressure.

Virtually no one in the MSU community has come to Penn’s defense, either to err on the side of political correctness or out of fear they will be targeted next.

In a statement, the university suggested Penn’s comments “may have negatively impacted the learning environment.”

As students, we strongly disagree. More importantly, we believe this is a subject worthy of a free and open debate.

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