Georgetown University report on offensive tweet by law school administrator raises free speech concerns

Last week, Ilya Shapiro announced his resignation from Georgetown University following the conclusion of an investigation by the University’s Office for Institutional Diversity, Equity, and Affirmative Action (IDEAA). , who had been tasked with determining whether his Twitter comment in January violated the University’s policies on Equal opportunity and non-discrimination in employment and educationand Harassment Policy Statement. Shapiro said his resignation was a direct response to the language of IDEEA’s report on the investigation.

PEN America was given access to the IDEA report with the stipulation that the organization could cite it, but not publish it in its entirety. After reviewing the report, we conclude that it contains several statements of concern from a freedom of expression perspective.

Background

In February, Shapiro was to become executive director of the Georgetown Center for the Constitution. The week before his start date, he tweeted that his choice for the Supreme Court vacancy was Sri Srinivasan, a judge of South Asian descent. “Objectively the best choice for Biden is Sri Srinivasan who is a solid smart prog&v,” Shapiro wrote on Twitter. “Even identity politics has the advantage of being the first Asian American (Indian). But unfortunately [Srinivasan] doesn’t fit into the last hierarchy of intersectionality, so we’ll have fewer black women. Thank heaven for small favors? The tweet sparked outrage, with many in the Georgetown community calling for her to be fired for the comment, saying it was disparaging and discriminatory towards black women. Shapiro, who deleted and apologized for the tweet, was placed on leave for ensuing investigations by Georgetown’s human resources department and the IDEAA office; these surveys lasted from February to June.

Ultimately, the IDEA report does not explicitly conclude that Shapiro’s tweets violated University policies, on the grounds that he was not yet employed at the time the comments were made. He also acknowledges that Shapiro’s views on affirmative action are protected by the university’s free speech policy and that his tweet “was not directed at any specific individual.” However, the report concludes that Shapiro’s comments “disparage individuals based on their race, gender and gender”, that they “have had a significant negative impact on the Georgetown community” and that “they have should he make another, similar or more serious remark as an employee of Georgetown, a hostile environment based on race, gender and sex would likely be created” – a comment Shapiro cited as making his future job at Georgetown “untenable”.

Concerns

As a free speech organization, we are troubled by the criteria by which Georgetown University’s IDEEA report determines the tweet had a “significant negative impact” that could constitute what the policy of harassment calls “severe or widespread” conduct. The report cites an open letter signed by more than 1,000 students and student organizations, letters from alumni and a student sit-in as evidence of the tweet’s “impact”. However, these examples only demonstrate general dissatisfaction or anger with Shapiro’s words, not specific or direct impact on individual students. As the University’s own harassment policy notes, “the aggrieved party’s perception of the offensiveness of the alleged conduct, by itself, is not sufficient by itself to constitute harassment” – yet it is. is exactly how the report uses this evidence.

Similarly, the report determines that the conduct could be construed as pervasive by observing that, “By posting his words on a social media platform, the respondent’s words had the potential to reach millions of people, including including every member of the Georgetown Law community.” But this approach incorrectly suggests that the “potential” impact of an offensive comment on Twitter is as or more detrimental, solely because of its public nature, than if the same comment were made directly to a student or in a class.

These claims are also based on an interpretation that the “clear words” of Shapiro’s tweet can only be interpreted to mean that he views all black women as “inferior” and unqualified for Supreme Court nomination. While PEN America agrees that the tweet is patently offensive, reading the report’s meaning of the tweet isn’t the only possible interpretation; Shapiro’s own interpretation – that he said anyone else would be inferior to Srinivasan, his preferred choice for justice – is plausible.

The University’s policy on freedom of expression clearly states that “wide latitude” should be given to speech in the academic context; yet, taken as a whole, the report appears to exclude space for open discussion, vaguely suggesting that a “similar” remark by Shapiro would “likely” violate these policies in the future. By using such vague language, the report fails to offer Shapiro effective guidance on what “remarks” might be considered grounds for further investigation, reprimand, or termination under corporate policy. university on bullying. This is a case that calls for precision: much of the investigation focuses on the fine line between Shapiro’s unpopular political views, his intention to write the tweet, and the impact the tweet had. on the students. By using nonspecific language to describe what conduct could lead to future discipline, the report abolishes these distinctions and leaves the conclusion that any number of future statements by Shapiro, whether or not protected by the Liberty Policy expression of Georgetown, could result in punishment.

Conclusion

In PEN America’s analysis, Georgetown University and the IDEEA report did not directly violating Ilya Shapiro’s free speech protections under Georgetown politics. On the contrary, they violated them indirectly through a series of misinterpretations of the university’s policies on harassment and free speech. While the report was intended to remain confidential, elements are now public and the errors it contains could well have a chilling effect in Georgetown, even for the protected speech of the professors. A more thorough report could have avoided these issues, keeping the focus on the offensiveness of Shapiro’s tweet and offering effective suggestions for remediation rather than implicating Georgetown further in an escalating free speech controversy. .

As PEN America stated in its Campus Freedom of Speech Principles, “Whether some people may experience offense or insult or negative feelings such as anger, resentment, frustration, or discouragement in response to the speech of others is not a sufficient reason to limit this speech, because by its nature speech frequently arouses such feelings. At the same time, “the responsibility to consider the impact of words, images, and messages on diverse groups of students is reinforced for administrators and faculty to the extent that their professional duties encompass creating and maintaining of an open and equal learning environment”. In interpreting and applying punitive policies, university administrators should keep in mind the need to protect even remarks that many find offensive, while working to encourage faculty and administrators to be aware of the harm that their lyrics can potentially cause.

We call on Georgetown University to clarify that its existing policies on free speech and harassment are still valid, and that this report, and the analysis in this case, does not indicate how these policies will be interpreted and implemented. implemented in the future.

About PEN America

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect free expression in the United States and around the world. We defend the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the freedoms that make it possible. Learn more at pen.org.

Martha K. Merrill