'White genocide' tweet sparks academic freedom row

Drexel tones down criticism of professor over tweet attacked by right-wing media

January 3, 2017
Tweet with caution

Drexel University and one of its professors faced an onslaught of criticism for his Christmas Eve tweet saying, “All I want for Christmas is white genocide.” And on Christmas Day, Drexel issued a statement strongly condemning the tweet.

That action led the professor and many other academics to call on Drexel to offer a stronger defence of academic freedom and its professor. Many said that the tweet – by George Ciccariello-Maher, associate professor of politics and global studies – was clearly satire. They noted that Ciccariello-Maher has argued that white genocide is a fiction, something that white nationalists imagine and promote as a real threat in the US, when it is not in fact a threat.

Last week, Drexel issued a new statement. The new statement offers milder criticism of Ciccariello-Maher and notes that there may be multiple ways to read his tweet. The statement says that "his words, taken at face value and shared in the constricted Twitter format, do not represent the values of inclusion and understanding espoused by Drexel University".

Further, the new statement says that "the wide range of reactions to his tweets suggests that his intentions were not adequately conveyed. These responses underscore the importance of choosing one’s words thoughtfully and exercising appropriate judgment in light of the inherent limitations presented by communications on social media."

In contrast, the original statement said, "Professor Ciccariello-Maher's comments are utterly reprehensible, deeply disturbing and do not in any way reflect the values of the university."

On academic freedom, the new statement also struck a different tone.

The original statement said that "the university recognises the right of its faculty to freely express their thoughts and opinions in public debate", but it also said that Drexel "is taking this situation very seriously" and was setting up a meeting with the professor. Those comments led many to question whether the university was in fact defending the professor's right to free expression or discouraging it.

The new statement is much more specific that the tweet in question was free speech. "The university vigorously supports the right of its faculty members and students to freely express their opinions in the course of academic debate and discussion. In this vein, we recognise Professor Ciccariello-Maher’s tweets as protected speech."

Drexel's president and provost – John A. Fry and M. Brian Blake, respectively – signed the new statement but not the old one.

The new statement also notes challenges posed by social media. "Very often electronic forms of communication (Twitter, in particular) are limited in their ability to communicate satire, irony and context, especially when referencing a horror like genocide."

The controversy over Ciccariello-Maher's tweet follows several others in which academics have made comments on social media that were understandable to those in their academic and social circles but that became highly controversial when shared widely. In the case of Ciccariello-Maher, right-wing websites such as Breitbart have linked to the original tweet and criticised it.

Ciccariello-Maher could not be reached for his reaction to the new Drexel statement.

In an email about the original statement, he said in part, "What is most unfortunate is that this statement amounts to caving to the truly reprehensible movements and organisations that I was critiquing. On the university level, moreover, this statement – despite a tepid defence of free speech – sends a chilling message and sets a frightening precedent. It exposes untenured and temporary faculty not only to internal disciplinary scrutiny, but equally importantly, it encourages harassment as an effective means to impact university policies."

Drexel's initial response to Ciccariello-Maher's tweet drew sharp rebukes from others as well.

More than 9,000 people have signed a petition (circulated prior to the release of the second statement by Drexel) that said: "Let Drexel know – in the midst of the deafening, organised troll storm – that racist trolls deserve no platform in dictating academic discourse, let alone the off-duty tweets of academics. They are being very noisy; we can't be silent."

Many other groups and authors have been critical of the original Drexel statement. A blog post by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education said that the university "failed" to defend academic freedom. A blog post at Reason, a libertarian publication, said, "Even if Ciccariello-Maher isn't formally disciplined, the experience of being called before the administration to answer for his tweet crimes is a form of silencing."

Henry Reichman, professor emeritus of history at California State University at East Bay and chair of the AAUP's Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, wrote on the AAUP blog that the university's original response was "simply wrong".

He explained, "To be sure, the university has every right to disassociate itself from extramural comments made by members of its faculty. But, unless a duly constituted faculty hearing committee determines those comments to be evidence of genuine professional irresponsibility, the university must not pass judgment on the content of such expression. To label these comments as 'reprehensible' or even just 'disturbing' is both to take sides in an essentially political dispute and to pass judgment on the private views of its instructors. If the university publicly labels one faculty member’s tweet 'reprehensible', is it not obliged now to comment on other tweets by faculty members? Who will judge where the boundaries between reprehension, neutrality and approval lie?"

Via email, Reichman said he was traveling and hadn't yet studied the new Drexel statement but said that "it certainly seems an improvement over their initial response".

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