by Henry Farrell
September 23, 2016
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Glenn Reynolds is a piece of work. Much of his blogging is in the ambiguous borderland between right wing hackery and active depravity. Even so, I was disturbed to see this in Inside Higher Ed:
The University of Tennessee at Knoxville says it’s investigating a law professor’s tweet suggesting that motorists “run down” protesters blocking traffic following a fatal police shooting in Charlotte, N.C. The professor, a popular blogger with the Twitter handle @Instapundit, says he hasn’t been contacted by the university directly … On Thursday, Melanie D. Wilson, dean of Tennessee’s College of Law, posted a statement to the university website saying that she was “aware of the remarks” and of the “serious and legitimate concerns expressed by members of the [law college] family and the University of Tennessee community, as well as concerned citizens across the country.”Wilson said Reynolds’s comments “do not reflect my views and opinions, nor do they reflect the values of the college and university,” and that she, administrators and faculty members are “investigating this matter.”
The reason is straightforward. As Chris, Alex Gourevitch and Corey have argued at length, the lack of job security across much of the US means that employers can threaten your job to discipline you for things they don’t like, including punishing activities that have nothing to do with one’s employment. I don’t like Reynolds being investigated for a tweet that doesn’t have anything obvious to do with his employment as a law professor. If he were to be punished for it, it would be seriously problematic.
To be clear – this is not a matter of academic freedom. Reynolds isn’t, as far as I can tell, acting as a scholar when he blogs or tweets, and I don’t think anyone with two braincells to rub together could mistake his blogging and tweeting for scholarship. It’s opinionating – often extremely nasty opinionating in my opinion – but that’s it. Unless Reynolds puts it down as part of his employment activity in his annual report, I can’t see how it’s connected to his role at the University of Tennessee, and even if he did, it would seem to me a stretch.
The real issue is broader and more straightforward – people should not be punished on the job for stuff they do off it. Unless there is evidence that Reynolds is biased against black people or people with different politics in the classroom, I don’t see how his tweeting or blogging, however nasty, is relevant. I understand that Reynolds has been suspended for a month from his op-ed column at USA Today – here there is arguably more of a case, given that they are both forms of opinionating but it’s a case that I’m still skeptical of. I can’t help but think that USA Today knew exactly what they were getting when they hired him – he hasn’t changed much over the years. It seems to me a bit rich that they should be getting skittish now.
It could be argued that Reynolds was using the tweet to incite other people to commit violence. For sure, Reynolds has been eager to accuse others of advocating violence in the past, including his ridiculous claim that Erik Loomis was using “eliminationist rhetoric” for saying that he would like to see Wayne LaPierre’s “head on a stick.” Yet this doesn’t seem to me like direct incitement (although it’s closer than Loomis’s metaphor) – it’s more plausibly a nasty way of saying that he doesn’t particularly care about the lives of the black protestors, and personally wouldn’t be perturbed if they got hurt or killed. That says some very unpleasant things about Glenn Reynolds (who I believe is, rather surprisingly, the son of a genuine civil rights activist), but it doesn’t say that he is specifically trying to encourage people to kill others.
Finally, there’s a temptation to see this as just deserts. After all, Reynolds helped start the ball rolling on the Erik Loomis affair, and despite his angry protestations that he “never called for Prof. Erik Loomis to be fired,” seemed very happy to approvingly quote a correspondent arguing that “at a minimum, some people at URI should occasionally monitor [Loomis’s] class or question his students to find out whether he brings anywhere close to that amount of venom to discussions with students who disagree with him.”
The temptation ought to be vigorously resisted. Glenn Reynolds may be a despicable and mendacious hypocrite but again, this doesn’t change the facts of the case – we shouldn’t use people’s jobs and livelihoods to punish them for things they do in their personal lives that aren’t connected to their jobs.
I can’t imagine that Reynolds will be particularly enthused by this intervention – it certainly hasn’t been written in a fashion calculated to please him. Furthermore, he detests me personally (given what he is, I’d be worried if he didn’t; to misquote someone much better than me, I welcome his hatred). Even so, I specifically and strongly urge the University of Tennessee to drop this investigation. There is an important general principle of employers not punishing people for what they do off the job, which needs to be defended, and to the greatest extent possible, extended. That Reynolds, both in his personal conduct and political beliefs isn’t committed to this principle, is entirely and completely irrelevant.
Henry Farrell is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.