Babson, Free Speech, and Overblown Outrage

I had originally planned to write a brief rant about how all the remaining top contenders of the Democratic primary are white (because hey, what the fuck is up with that?), but I recently learned about something a bit more close to home that I wanted to talk about.

In early January of this year, Asheen Phansey, an adjunct professor at Babson college posted a joke on his personal Facebook page. It was, in its entirety, as follows: “In retaliation, Ayatollah Khomenei should tweet a list of 52 sites of beloved American cultural heritage that he would bomb. Um… Mall of America? …Kardashian Residence?”

It’s not a good joke, but quickly a local blog picked it up with the exaggerated headline: “Babson Professor Urges Iran to Bomb 52 American Cultural Sites to Own the Trumpsters”. The article says, “Begging a religious lunatic who oppresses women and gay people to blow up American cultural sites is sadly par for the course for your run of the mill college professor in 2020.” This soon found its way to Twitter where the professor was described as an “America-hating terrorist supporter” and others said he should be deported. He has US citizenship by birthright. People were encouraged to call Babson to complain. 

Within 48 hours, Babson opened a formal investigation and condemned “threatening words and/or actions condoning violence and/or hate”. The professor was suspended without pay, and when the investigation was concluded, just one day later, he was fired. 

I personally disagree with the decision made by the Babson administration, and I’d like to explain why. First, two disclaimers: This was not a good joke, it wasn’t very tasteful, I will not defend it. Also, I am not questioning the legality of Babson’s action. As a private institution, they are not bound by the First Amendment. However, I believe that the firing of Phansey is a gross overreaction that damages the very important culture of freedom of expression at Babson and in higher education in general. 

Babson has stated commitments to academic freedom and freedom of expression, and historically they have stood by them even in controversial situations. It is a betrayal of these principles to now so hastily fire a professor over a poor joke on Facebook. Phansey apologized and removed the post, but to no avail. PEN America, a free speech advocacy group, put it well: “If professors face such extreme consequences for comments that contain sarcasm, humor, exaggeration, or irony on social media, it will perpetuate self-censorship and a culture where honest discourse is paralyzed. College leaders must not rush into formal investigations and decide on severe repercussions in response to speech that contains no nexus to a professor’s role and no clear indication of violent intent.” PEN America also released an open letter calling for Babson to reverse the decision signed by a number of groups and individuals, including the American Federation of Teachers, AFL CIO, and the ACLU of Massachusetts. 

There is also some weirdness going on where Babson claimed to be “cooperating with local, state, and federal authorities,” when in fact there was no criminal investigation, and they had simply emailed the Wellesley police to warn of a potential social media firestorm. This brings us to a different broader point about how institutions deal with social media outrage. This incident was nothing until it began circulating among conservative social media circles, and Babson’s response can be read as an attempt to head off negative social media coverage. 

It’s worth stopping here to remember that social media is not real life. Conservative twitter is not real life. Liberal twitter is not real life. Online outrage is not always without valid cause or purpose, but it must be handled tactfully and thoughtfully. In their haste to respond to social media, Babson made a bad decision, and I hope they will reconsider it. 

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