Did a professor lose a new job because of political pressure over his opposition to Donald Trump? Or did his new employers view his speech as threats and reconsider their decision? Kevin Allred, who describes himself as a “Beyoncé professor” teaching the politics of pop culture and Beyoncé Knowles, announced last night that Montclair State had fired him from their faculty before he had a chance to teach a single class, and offered a sarcastic “congrats to the Trump trolls” (via Twitchy and Jake Tapper):
Those more familiar with political environments on American campuses over the past several decades might suspect that something other than ‘conservative political pressure’ was at work in this decision. (What are the odds that a north New Jersey public school twelve miles from New York City would be captive to the Right? Low.) And … they’d be correct. Allred didn’t just stop at criticizing Trump, but openly wished for Trump to get shot three days ago in a now-deleted tweet. One of Allred’s celebrity followers warned him that he might have gone a wee bit too far:
That puts the termination in a new light. One point to keep in mind: we don’t actually know whether Montclair State’s decision to terminate Allred had anything to do with his social media habits. They may have simply decided that they didn’t really need a “Beyoncé studies” program after working out the syllabi with Allred. (A search on Montclair’s site for Allred turns up one link, but the reference to Allred has been deleted from that page.) However, Allred himself seems to chalk his firing up to blowback from his social media speech, and wishing for an assassination might make even the most progressive of campuses a wee bit skittish, especially for a new hire.
Not that this was an isolated incident. Popehat’s Ken White recalled (on Twitter, natch) that Allred made some headlines in November for his threats to attack Trump voters with either his car or a gun. At the time, White noted that the statements were probably protected speech and reminded readers that incitement requires a number of conditions (under Brandenburg especially) that weren’t present at the time:
Remember, only “true threats” are outside the scope of First Amendment protection. A statement is only a “true threat” if a reasonable person would interpret the words, in their context, as an expression of actual intent to do harm. In addition, the speaker must either intend that the words be taken as a statement of intent to do harm, or at least must be reckless about whether or not they would be interpreted that way (that’s still a bit up in the air, legally).
Here, the context is a tweet rant by a Rutgers professor. The Second Amendment tweet is part of a rant about gun control, and the bumper sticker tweet is part of an attack of intellectual and emotional incontinence about Trump. Neither threatens a specific target and both sound figurative and hyperbolic. So: the government probably can’t satisfy the objective test (that a reasonable person would read these as sincere threats), let alone the subjective test (what he intended). It’s likely protected by the First Amendment. Legally.
Those elements are even less present in Friday’s tweet. It still might get some attention from the Secret Service just because they’re tasked with being hypervigilant, but it’s unlikely to lead to any legal trouble for Allred — because it shouldn’t. We do not live in a society with lèse majesté laws in which wishing ill on a ruler becomes a crime, nor do we want to live in such a society. Allred’s tweet falls under First Amendment protections for free speech, all the more so because of the clear context of political criticism.
Ironically, Allred himself seemed unclear on these concepts last February:
Legal issues aside, the First Amendment does not mean that others have to refrain from forming their own conclusions about Allred and determining whether they want to associate with him. It guarantees the opposite, actually. Public statements can certainly go into hiring decisions, and before a professor earns tenure his or her employment is at-will. That’s certainly going to be true when the job hasn’t even started yet. Legally, Allred should be in the clear. Morally and socially, that’s another question altogether, and no one is under any obligation (outside of a valid contract) to engage Allred either personally or professionally.
Perhaps this will be a learning experience for the professor about the toxic nature of obsession and rage. In another deleted tweet, Allred (who has protected his account so that no one can read the tweets without his approval) told the so-called trolls, “you. will. not. break. me. down. you. will. not. win.” The deletions and the locking of his social-media feed might indicate that Allred learned a valuable lesson — at the very least, about discretion.