Phi Beta Cons

Very Strange Things

Charles’s post about Wisconsin conspiracy theorist (and part-time professor) Kevin Barrett presents an ideal time to discuss the rather important legal questions presented by his case. There are two primary issues here: (1) his strange ravings outside the classroom and outside the scope of his employment; and (2) his decision to actually teach his theories in an “Introduction to Islam” class.

Regarding his ravings, Barrett certainly has the right to spread his theories outside of work. We would be living in a truly chilling world if even part-time employees of state institutions were punished for engaging in constitutionally protected speech on their own time. His “extramural utterances” (to borrow a phrase from the AAUP) are clearly constitutionally protected, and the cure for that type of speech is more speech. There is, however, one caveat. To the extent that Barrett uses his position to bolster his credibility (in other words, presents himself as “Wisconsin professor Kevin Barrett” as part of an effort to lend a scholarly veneer to his efforts), the university may ask him to stop using their name and his position in public statements (and at the “Scholars for 9/11 Truth” website, he does identify himself as from “UW-Madison”). He has a right to speak, but he doesn’t necessarily have a right to use the goodwill and the reputation of his employer to advance his theories.
Inside the classroom, things are quite different. UW-Madison has every right to decide that its “Introduction to Islam” class will not include 9/11 conspiracy theories (especially when explained by someone with no academic qualifications relevant to building design and construction). Ultimate responsibility for course content and quality lies with the institution, not the professor, and it is this institutional failure that is, I believe, the source of much of the outrage. Why can’t the administration tell Barrett that he can teach the class he’s qualified to teach, but he can’t intentionally navigate into areas outside his expertise? When schools stand by radical professors even when those professors teach absurd theories far outside their chosen fields, it leads legislators (and the public) to react with, well, rage. 
Why not limit Kevin Barrett to teaching the subjects he’s qualified to teach, warn him against using the university’s good name to advance his strange ideas, and then advance a clear and credible defense of his rights to free speech outside his job? But of course, such a decision would involve reigning in a radical leftist, which would leave less time for Wisconsin administrators to pursue their first love — censoring Christians.

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