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FIRE Intermediates In Termination of UO ASL Professor

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has launched an investigation into the termination of University of Oregon American Sign Language professor Peter Quint after he made what was perceived to be an off-color comment to a student in his ASL 203 class. A letter was sent from FIRE to University President Richard Lariviere on June 27 insisting that Quint be reinstated for the 2011-12 academic year.

In his 200-level ASL classes, as is the case with most 200-level language classes, Quint expected his students to not speak aloud — similar to a Spanish professor expecting students to not speak in English. He was having trouble with students not following this policy, so in order to attempt compliance, he relayed a personal story about being taken hostage in Pakistan, and how his ability to communicate via sign language saved his life. That was May 4th of this year. Then this happened:

Being deaf himself, Quint had made it clear to his students, both during lectures and in his syllabus, that respectful communication in class required that all communication be visible. Yet, later during that very class, some students again violated this policy. In frustration he expressed, “Do you want me to take a gun out and shoot you in the head so you understand what I am talking about? I had to practice being respectful in Pakistan otherwise I would have been shot. Can you practice the same respect here?”

Those ASL 203 students did not see Peter Quint again. Nor did anyone else at the university, as on the same day, Michael Bullis, the dean of the College of Education, sent Quint an email suspending him from teaching for the next day. The next day, Bullis sent Quint another email, suspending him indefinitely and promising to meet with him to discuss his future employment.

According to FIRE’s investigation, that meeting never happened, and on May 11 Quint received his final email from Bullis, dictating his termination.

The problems here are twofold — not only was Quint denied the due process that should have been afforded to him as an employee of the University of Oregon, his free speech was infringed upon, as FIRE mentioned in its June 27 letter to President Lariviere:

The principles of academic freedom and free expression in the university setting mandate far more tolerance than UO has afforded Quint. As the Supreme Court stated in Texas v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397, 414 (1989), “If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.” The Court handed down such a robust defense of potentially offensive speech precisely because deeming certain speech to be offensive is an entirely subjective exercise. In a milieu as diverse as the modern academy, speech is bound to be misinterpreted, and offense is virtually unavoidable. Free speech needs breathing room in order to thrive.

Finally, UO’s punishment of Quint raises grave due process concerns. Bullis completely failed to provide any protections or follow any part of the process spelled out in the Oregon Administrative Rules (OAR) for the punishment of non-tenured faculty members. The utter lack of notice, charges, a hearing, or an opportunity to appeal constitutes a severe violation of Quint’s due process rights under the rules and a betrayal of fundamental fairness. Moreover, Bullis’ requirement that Quint not “contact faculty, staff, or students” before the end of his appointment was a further violation of Quint’s free speech rights which also made it effectively impossible for Quint to defend himself and his reputation.

FIRE is demanding that President Lariviere apologize for Bullis’ actions, reinstate Quint for the 2011-12 academic year and remove all records of this from Quint’s employment files. They are also expecting a response from the university by July 18.

The most alarming part of this situation is the complete lack of due process that Quint was granted throughout this situation. The University of Oregon has a tenuous relationship with the first amendment on campus, which was seen clearly through the Pacifica Forum debacle, but also through an interview with Dean of Students Paul Shang in the January 26 issue of the Oregon Commentator. Dr. Shang was asked, “The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has listed the UO as a Red Light school for its speech code policy. How do you juggle the responsibility of providing free expression and student safety?” His response [emphasis added]:

That’s kind of a conversation that evolves. Depending on what the issue is and how something is stated, you can get different kinds of perspectives on what sorts of infringements are occurring. FIRE looks at things from just the free speech perspective. There are, in my opinion, a lot of issues having to do with free speech that people need to be thoughtful about. The fact that we are the only democratic society in the world that has these notions of unbridled speech is something that we need to think about. Canada has limitations of speech. England, Israel, all kinds of democratic countries have different perspectives on unbridled speech. That is something that may become more of an issue as our country evolves.

What we do here at the university is we want to promote freedom of speech. The free expression of ideas is fundamental to higher education. The other piece that is fundamental to higher education is that ideas will be expressed in such a way that they don’t undermine the civility that’s necessary for people to participate in a higher educational experience. You can’t be intimidated, you can’t feel threatened, you can’t feel in any way that you’ll be humiliated and it’s in that context that you can have a true free expression of ideas. On the one hand we want to have freedom of speech, on the other hand we want everyone to participate and have equal access to the higher educational opportunity.

So we’re trying to balance some things, things that you’d agree are fundamental rights. FIRE is looking at things from one perspective: the freedom of speech perspective. And certainly we, as you know, will do everything we can to promote and defend freedom of speech, to abide by the law and the notion and right of freedom of speech. On the other hand we want to make sure that everybody on campus has an equal opportunity to the whole educational experience.

Let go for a minute of the fact that Dr. Shang didn’t really answer the question that was asked. What he did there was create a dichotomy: freedom of speech vs. access to education and student safety. Not only does this show a lack of understanding of the First Amendment and its scope, it has potential parallels to this situation with Peter Quint: did the UO terminate Quint’s employment because they were worried about the safety of his students? We can take the skepticism a step further: was the UO protecting itself from the potential backlash and bad press of having students “feel threatened” by a comment made by a professor?

Legally, neither of these concerns holds any weight. FIRE is no stranger to communication with the University of Oregon, and has been at least somewhat successful in its endeavors. Heck, the Oregon Commentator is still around. Let’s hope that this case is no different, and Professor Quint receives the process he is due.

(Note: FIRE has a “take action” link at the end of its blog post about this issue where readers can click a button to send President Lariviere a letter urging him to reinstate Quint. The key sentence in the form letter: “The rights of UO faculty are very fragile indeed if the university believes it can dismiss its instructors for their classroom comments without even presenting any formal charges against them, much less allowing them the opportunity to address and rebut such charges.”)

  1. UO Matters says:

    Lariviere and Bullis are taking away our academic freedoms. Soon professors will need a concealed carry permit just to make a presentation with bullet points.

  2. Michael G. says:

    Oregon Constitution: A I S 8. “Freedom of speech and press. No law shall be passed restraining the free expression of opinion, or restricting the right to speak, write, or print freely on any subject whatever; but every person shall be responsible for the abuse of this right”

    I’d think that abuse would be defined as speech that causes soe actual harm, not just result in a couple of offended kids who were being disrespectful in the first place.

    No actual harm, no actual foul.

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