The Corner

Culture

Dear University of Tennessee, Hands Off Glenn Reynolds

Earlier this week, Twitter briefly suspended University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds — better known to legions of loyal readers as Instapundit — for this tweet:

Twitter reinstated him in return for a promise to delete the tweet. Reynolds complied, but also preserved the image to avoid accusations of “airbrushing.” On his blog, he explained his thinking:

Sorry, blocking the interstate is dangerous, and trapping people in their cars and surrounding them is a threat. Driving on is self-preservation, especially when we’ve had mobs destroying property and injuring and killing people. But if Twitter doesn’t like me, I’m happy to stop providing them with free content.

He continued:

I’ve always been a supporter of free speech and peaceful protest. I fully support people protesting police actions, and I’ve been writing in support of greater accountability for police for years.

But riots aren’t peaceful protest. And blocking interstates and trapping people in their cars is not peaceful protest — it’s threatening and dangerous, especially against the background of people rioting, cops being injured, civilian-on-civilian shootings, and so on. I wouldn’t actually aim for people blocking the road, but I wouldn’t stop because I’d fear for my safety, as I think any reasonable person would.

“Run them down” perhaps didn’t capture this fully, but it’s Twitter, where character limits stand in the way of nuance.

Reynolds also <a href=”http://cj.dotomi.com/c0110shqp7/hot/65C5E868/B6A76EA/5/5/5?c=mA0v=0ByOGDIFN5IIz9FLIIvBz&C93=zBB7%LS%KX%KXEEE.CAsB6vsG.u64%KXAB69G%KX6705065%KXKIJO%KXIR%KXKK%KXABsBw4w5B-y3w55-9wG563vA%KXRIQOKLII%KX<<zBB7://EEE.1v686uG.u64:QI/u30u2-OJNKJRN-JIPIRLJL<<Y<apologized in USA Today, and the paper suspended his twice-weekly column for one month. Twitter and USA Today are both private companies and can print what they want to print (though I should note that Twitter’s concern for rioters is almost comical given the freedom it grants Black Lives Matters radicals — and many others — to openly advocate for death and violence.) Now, however, the University of Tennessee — a state agency — is piling on, launching an “investigation” of Reynolds’s tweet. Here’s the dean, Melanie Wilson:

University administrators, college faculty, and I are investigating this matter.

The university is committed to academic freedom, freedom of speech, and diverse viewpoints, all of which are important for an institution of higher education and the free exchange of ideas. My colleagues and I in the university’s leadership support peaceful civil disobedience and all forms of free speech, but we do not support violence or language that encourages violence.

This is pathetic. What’s there to investigate? He wrote a tweet, it says what it says, he deleted it, and he made his explanation. Moreover, his tweet – as written – is constitutionally-protected speech, full stop. As the Supreme Court noted in Watts v. United States, “The language of the political arena . . . is often vituperative, abusive, and inexact.” The Watts case involved a young man who claimed that if he was drafted and made to carry a rifle, then “the first man I want to get in my sights is L. B. J.” The Court found seemingly violent “hyperbole” is constitutionally protected.

Reynolds was speaking as a private citizen on a matter of public concern. His speech constituted neither a true threat nor incitement to violence. State officials are free to condemn his speech, they are not free to punish that speech.

Moreover, let’s not forget the context. Motorists do not have to yield to a violent mob simply because that violent mob seeks “social justice.” Instead, if a motorist reasonably believes his or her life – or the lives of their passengers – are in danger, they can take steps to defend themselves, including by pressing the gas to leave the scene.

UT has to know that it’s inviting litigation here – litigation it would lose, decisively. Glenn Reynolds is both a respected academic and a man who can’t be intimidated out of exercising his First Amendment rights. For now, the chancellor is supporting his dean’s investigation. He’s making a mistake. It’s time for him to exercise adult leadership and fulfill the first and most important duty of any public official – defend the Constitution. 

David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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