A history professor was found guilty of discrimination and harassment after writing on Facebook that he hated white people, leading an advocacy group to complain that Rutgers University had violated his right to free speech.
In May, James Livingston, a tenured professor who is white and lives in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City, wrote on social media about his frustration over the gentrification of the neighborhood. “OK, officially, I now hate white people," he posted. "I am a white people, for God’s sake, but can we keep them--us--us out of my neighborhood?”
He wrote that the restaurant he was in was “overrun with little Caucasian ---holes who know their parents will approve of everything they do," and announced, “I hereby resign from my race.”
The post was removed by Facebook for violating standards on hate speech. Livingston later wrote, “I just don’t want little Caucasians overrunning my life … remand them to the suburbs, where they and their parents can colonize every restaurant.”
His words were quickly picked up by the media, starting with the Daily Caller, and provoked immediate outrage.
Livingston faced a barrage of hate emails, slur-laced insults and death threats.
He also faced an investigation by Rutgers, where officials said they had also received messages complaining about his words. Livingston told university officials that he was writing satirically, that his words weren’t a true expression of racism, and that he had a right to express his opinions, according to a copy of the investigation that he shared with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
The report concluded: “Professor Livingston’s statements were clearly insulting and degrading to Caucasians. While he may indeed have merely meant to express his views on gentrification, he exercised astonishingly poor judgment in his choice of words.
"Professor Livingston clearly was on notice that his words were offensive, yet instead of clarifying that he meant to comment on gentrification, he chose to make another belligerent barb against whites. Given Professor Livingston’s insistence on making disparaging racial comments, a reasonable student may have concerns that he or she would be stigmatized in his classes because of his or her race. As such, Professor Livingston’s comments violated University Policy.”
He was found guilty of violating the school’s policy prohibiting discrimination and harassment. His appeal was denied, according to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which has asked the school to reverse the decision, and he faces disciplinary action that could include discharge.
A spokeswoman for Rutgers declined to discuss the case, saying they could not discuss the specifics of a personnel matter.
“I allowed FIRE to publicize this finding not simply on my own behalf, but because I believe the intellectual mission of Rutgers, a place to which I’ve devoted my career, is in peril, and being overridden for the sake of public relations,” Livingston said in a statement. “Allowing human resource administrators to tell a professor of 30 years what he can and can’t say on Facebook means that the tradition of academic freedom in our public universities is essentially over. I respect that tradition too much not to protest.
“I’m also a fan of the Constitution, which is equally under assault here,” Livingston said. “I very much hope the university will see its way to overturning this finding of ‘reverse racism’ and reaffirming the democratic freedoms that Rutgers has long stood for.”
Rutgers’s president has defended the rights of faculty to speak freely, even when their words offend others.
“Both academic freedom and our First Amendment rights are at the core of what we do,” Robert Barchi wrote. “Our University policy on speech is clear. All members of our community enjoy the rights of free expression guaranteed by the First Amendment. Faculty members, as private citizens, enjoy the same freedoms of speech and expression as any private citizen and shall be free from institutional discipline in the exercise of these rights.”
The report on the investigation into Livingston noted that “the university does, however, demand that the conduct of a faculty member ‘be in accordance with standards dictated by law,' ” and that "the First Amendment generally affords a public employer substantial latitude to discipline employees for speech.”
“It is reasonable to predict that the university’s core function of educating a diverse student body may be disrupted by Professor Livingston’s public statements,” the report found, with numerous anonymous complaints that he was racist.
Suzanne Link, the president of the Rutgers University Student Assembly, wrote in an email, “At Rutgers, students feel strongly about their First Amendment rights, but it is widely acknowledged that there is a line between acceptable and unacceptable expression in our community. As a university, Rutgers prides itself on fostering inclusivity, and hateful rhetoric is not reflective of our values.”
Will Creeley of FIRE said the university had found Livingston guilty of either altering a workplace environment or hurting students' ability to get an education, despite the fact that there is no evidence that Rutgers received a complaint from anyone at the university about Livingston’s remarks.
“The concern for public relations goes to the heart of this case,” Creeley said. “It’s very easy for outrage mobs to seize upon a professor’s comment on social media, amplify it, deluge an institution with hate mail ... and ask for action.”
The First Amendment clearly protects private citizens employed by government agencies — such as a public university — to speak about matters of public concern, such as gentrification, Creeley said, and that right is particularly important for faculty members. “You may not agree with the faculty member, but the First Amendment exists to protect speech that challenges you or asks you to think about things in a different way.”