The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Please, Georgetown. Don’t fire an academic over tweets.

A clock tower on the campus of Georgetown Law School in Washington, D.C. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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Greg Lukianoff is president and chief executive of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and co-author of “The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure.” Adam Goldstein is senior research counsel at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. Ilya Shapiro is represented by counsel provided through the FIRE Legal Network.

Georgetown University is considering firing an academic over his tweets. If it does so, it will harm not only its own reputation but also the credibility of higher education in general.

Last Thursday, following the announcement of Justice Stephen G. Breyer’s retirement, President Biden reaffirmed a campaign pledge that he would nominate a Black woman to the Supreme Court.

Ilya Shapiro, recently tapped to be executive director of the Center for the Constitution at Georgetown University’s law school, turned to Twitter to express his disagreement. After identifying D.C. Circuit Chief Judge Sri Srinivasan as the “best pick,” Shapiro tweeted that Srinivasan “doesn’t fit into the latest intersectionality hierarchy so we’ll get lesser black woman” and that Biden’s nominee “will always have an asterisk attached.”

The tweets generated a storm of criticism, including many claims that Shapiro is racist (an odd argument, given that he was advocating the appointment of an Indian American to the Supreme Court). Nevertheless, Shapiro deleted the offending tweets and posted an apology, which began: “I regret my poor choice of words, which undermined my message that nobody should be discriminated against for his or her skin color.”

That was, after all, the point of his message: If the president eliminates any candidate who doesn’t fit a preferred race and gender, he may well miss the “best pick,” which Shapiro considered to be Srinivasan. That’s not a right-wing talking point; an ABC News-Ipsos poll found that 76 percent of respondents (including 54 percent of Democrats surveyed) said the president should consider all nominees, regardless of race or gender.

Nevertheless, Georgetown Law Dean William M. Treanor announced that Shapiro was placed on leave while an outside law firm investigates whether Shapiro’s now-deleted tweets violated its policies against discrimination and harassment.

But investigate what, exactly?

We at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education have been tracking cases of universities violating academic freedom for decades. But the past several years have been the worst we have ever seen.

In FIRE’s Scholars Under Fire database, we document 508 attempts to professionally sanction scholars for ideological reasons since 2015. The worst year was 2020, with 127 attempts, followed closely by 2021, with 103. And this is a nationwide problem: There have been attempts to sanction scholars at 66 percent of the top 100 U.S. News & World Report colleges.

Shapiro’s targeting marks the 10th attempt to get a professor sanctioned for ideological reasons at Georgetown University since 2015. Five attempts have been successful, with sanctions involving investigation, resignation, suspension and termination.

In a similar case, as journalist Bari Weiss pointed out, Georgetown rightly defended the rights of another professor, Carol Christine Fair, who tweeted in 2018 that “entitled white men” who defended then-Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh “deserve miserable deaths while feminists laugh as they take their last gasps.” Fair added the suggestion that “we castrate their corpses and feed them to swine.” Her tweets were no less offensive than Shapiro’s; they were just from the other political direction. To her credit, Fair has joined a letter supporting Shapiro.

But threats to free speech on campus aren’t just limited to the “politically incorrect.” A professor at University of Illinois Chicago was placed on leave for using two redacted slurs in a law school hypothetical involving workplace discrimination. Around the corner at Chicago State University, administrators threatened two professors with legal action for operating a blog critical of administrative decisions. At least 10 states are currently considering bills that would impose “divisive” content bans in higher education. If enacted, they would contradict First Amendment decisions going back to the 1950s.

Higher education’s credibility rests on the public belief that it is a place where all sides of every argument are subject to robust debate, disputation and discussion. If it becomes clear that these discussions are impossible on campuses, the reputation of higher education — and the shared world of facts it was intended to create — will suffer.

Treanor still has a chance to follow through on Georgetown’s promise that “all members” of its community have “the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn.” The university should end this investigation and model what higher education is meant to be: above the culture wars and committed to the unfettered search for truth.