You Have the Right to Stay Silent

Last month, a tenured professor of English I know posted the following comment on the social media page of an elected official who wanted public input on Covid-19 vaccination policies. “At this point, as vicious as it sounds,” she wrote, “I wouldn’t care if every unvaccinated person died.”

Speaking precisely, her diction indicates apathy towards the unvaccinated. She expresses no desire for them to die. Rather, she believes that it’s time for society to wash its hands from having to deal with them. “I wouldn’t care” is quite different from “I wish they would.”

Of course, most people perceived her comment as insidious. Many of them called administrators at the university where she teaches and demanded that she be fired. The chair of her division placed her on leave for the semester, and has facilitated her early retirement. Furthermore, the chair tapped the brakes on the endowed chair that the professor’s former students had established in her honor.

So much for the free exchange of ideas promised by the tenure system.

I try to teach students how to think, not what to think. I bring up difficult topics in class because I want you to learn how to discuss such things civilly and with productive ends in mind. I try to revel in logic and ethos of each argument rather than in winners and losers.

Yet I also warn students that “if you can’t get other people to think you’re right, you might as well be wrong.” In an era when social media both simplifies the way we share information and complicates its impact, my acquaintance’s story serves as a cautionary tale: we will be held accountable not only for what we say, but also how others interpret it.

The professor did not walk into a crowded building and yell “Fire!” She did not advocate genocide, deny historical fact, or use profanity. She shared an opinion that caused some people in power to clutch their pearls. Was her punishment fair? At what point do opinions expressed in social media through personal accounts become actionable?

This entry was posted in Politics, Pop Culture, Science, Social Media. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to You Have the Right to Stay Silent

  1. Kaylee Hall says:

    She has a freedom of speech, despite her professional position at a university. Her punishment wasn’t fair, she didn’t threaten anybody. She expressed an opinion. At a point where somebody threatens somebody else or themselves directly on social media, that’s when action should be taken.

  2. David Johnson says:

    Her comment while, considering to hear, was not in any criminal or deserving of punishment. If her statement was that unvaccinated people should die she would be deserving of the punishment, but it was not. So the punishment was not deserved.

  3. Oliver Higginbotham says:

    Personally, I do believe that she could of stated her comment a bit better but at the same time I do think she has a right to her freedom of speech and opinion. People might not agree with her thoughts about the virus and how certain people protect themselves against it but even though she has a conflicting idea with many doesn’t mean that she has no right to her own opinion of the current situation. I also think that this instance shouldn’t lead to her losing her job as she was only using her right to freedom of speech, not only that but she wasn’t pressing her thoughts onto others but only expressing it in public.

  4. Nicolas Neal says:

    Fairness’s synonymy to justice is that property of fairness by which the statement that some action is fair suggests a presupposition in a theory of justice. To assess the professor’s punishment (with such referent of fairness) as something that is just or unjust, one must first define these properties with one of such theories. However, if ‘fairness’ is taken to signify an eventual attitude (an attitude held towards an event), then one could describe her punishment in terms of their emotions towards it. I feel that the reactions to the professor’s statements are immature, insofar as the emotional energy spent by these reactors to engage themselves in this situation to the extent that they did is beyond that extent to which matured people would engage themselves. I as well feel that the professor’s statements were lacking intellectually. Many of the world’s disadvantaged populations lack the means to receive vaccination, many live in countries in which vaccines have not been made available, and many cannot obtain one without the sacrifice of their personal relationships (in the cases that one’s family is strongly against vaccination). Simply put, approximately 60% of the world is unvaccinated against COVID-19, yet the professor expressed herself as she did such to convey her disdain for those who put other’s lives in more risk than necessary while explicitly negating that she would care at all if this 60% of the world died. Obviously, she likely did not intend that her words be taken seriously, yet the nature of her comments annoyed me enough that I am somewhat glad that she was punished.

  5. Elliot Mathers says:

    opinions should always be kept to ones self in my opinion, what a contradiction to be truthful opinions of people on social media should not matter because you do not know them and should not care, but since this happened i can only say it is unfair but people should be more careful with words since once it is on the internet it is always.

  6. Hong Zheng says:

    People have the right to say whatever they please, but if what they say causes a disturbance, then backlashes will happen whether they were right or wrong. I do not believe her punishment was fair, but I think it was ignorant of her to underestimate the internet and to fail to realize her position. As a teacher of the public, she should know not to voice her opinions openly especially on such controversial topics. Yes, it might be wrong to deny someone’s voice on their opinions, but that is the truth. If you choose to shout opinions, you will receive backlashes whether you were right or wrong. Actions will be taken whenever the general public disagrees with you. Although unfair, that is just the world.

  7. Jon Kiesel says:

    The lesson to learn from this is that perception is reality. The phrase “I don’t care whether or not unvaccinated people die,” isn’t materially equivalent to the phrase “I think unvaccinated people should die,” however, this is exactly how the public interpreted her comment. The world is so full of landmines of cancelation where if you say anything that could be interpreted as offensive, your message often does come out as offensive. For instance, (and I know it’s not something to say on regularly on the internet, but it’s just as applicable to say in person) to make certain comparative statements of a personal preference of attraction, such as “I like X more than Y,” that could be interpreted as “I like X and I dislike Y,” even when it’s possible that you could like both or even dislike both. This way of thinking doesn’t necessarily help, but when it starts causing constructive responses like “What’s wrong with Y?” to become “Oh, so you think Y is bad because… ,” then it’s just harmful.

    As for if the punishment was fair, I would need more context to determine if she said anything else that contributed to her early retirement, but that comment by itself isn’t enough to be actionable. Except for maybe the diction in her comment, there probably isn’t another way to demonstrate apathy towards those that are unvaccinated, especially without having that apathy perceived as hatred. Was her take even acceptable? Given that not everyone can get the vaccine (as a medical or financial means), it’s not a good statement to make towards those who aren’t able to get vaccinated since you can’t morally justify apathy to people with immutable characteristics (or immutable at that moment). If no such people existed, I would’ve agreed with this take.

    There are so many worse things that could’ve been said anyway in which I think the price to pay for those worse things would’ve matched with her actual punishment. The punishment was too much for my liking.

  8. JD Hagood says:

    Within any punitive system, it should be self-evident that the punishment must match the crime. While there can be many grey areas in finding an “equal” punishment for an “equal” crime, it is agreeable that to threaten a person’s livelihood and security over a social media post is extreme. This extreme reaction is not isolated in this particular situation either. It can be seen all over the internet in the form of “cancel culture.” This form of ostracism often, if not always, exceeds the equal punishment for the crime. While the post from the professor was not well thought out, especially due to the fact that the audience interpreted a malicious message instead of an apathetic one, it did not warrant a leave from the university. An equal punishment in my opinion would be to force the professor to take down the post and issue a warning, assuming that no warnings have been issued to this professor in the past.
    Social media has allowed us to communicate ideas faster than ever and at the same time more compulsively than ever. It is important to remember that we have the freedom to say what we want, however, that freedom is inextricably bound to the responsibility we must carry for our words. All posts on social media have this responsibility tied to them, however, these responsibilities oftentimes do not warrant the reaction that they generate such as in this situation.

  9. Willem says:

    I believe her punishment was an overreaction. For something as simple as a tweet, a slap on the wrist or a formal warning would have sufficed. For her to tweet something on a personal account that would illicit that reaction, it would have to contain slurs, hate speech, and instructions of satanic rituals. Currently, the bar is set extremely low for what is considered actionable for personal accounts on social media.

  10. Sephora Poteau says:

    The professor was using their rights to their freedom of speech. Though I believe that the statement could have been said with a bit more delicacy, this should not have instigated their forced retirement. As social media progresses the thoughts that we share gain less context. You may have sided with this professor because you know them and believe that they would not support the ideas of mass genocide. Others, may not. These small, seemingly miniscule things on social media make huge impacts on our everyday lives. Opinions expressed through these accounts may become actionable when there is a pattern of the same behavior. Though this leads to the idea of what exactly constitutes as a pattern. I know of people who are actively discriminatory towards other races, ethnicities, identities, etc. and they have not been taken down as fast as this professor has. The real question is who should dictate what is right and wrong. Right now, those in power are picking and choosing what to care about. That day, it was the professor’s beliefs, another and it may be someone else’s political stance.

  11. Richard Zheng says:

    Her punishment was not fair in any way. The university which often acts as a business decided to cut its losses by firing the tenured professor after her receiving backlash from the “public.” The people complaining cannot be a true representation of the amount that want her fired from her post, just a representation of the ones who have time to openly and often vehemently hate against those who have differing opinions. This also is an example of the rampant “cancel culture” on social media today. The professor had no reason to be ushered into “early retirement” based on an opinion. Social media posts should be actionable when it contains a notion of action, or if it threatens another’s life.

  12. Aaron Sharp says:

    Was this punishment fair? No, but she won’t be able to convince anyone of any significance to change this consequence. She was put on early leave not because her higher-ups were offended by her comments, but because of the disruption, it made in their stable system. Controversy is no longer tolerated in this world and can get you in lots of trouble. To expand on this topic, this punishment was cruel, and unfair, and could probably be taken to court. She lost her job over a simple opinion under tenure. In the land of free speech, how is it right for people to spread rumors about dead fetuses’ in our vaccines, but it’s not right to express your feelings towards those imbues about their place. All this professor meant by her comment was “let natural selection do its work”. This comment was not a threat or harm to anyone’s life, and therefore, under tenure, no action should be taken aside from a stern talking to at most.

  13. Geethika Polepalli says:

    Was her punishment fair? Personally, I think her punishment was completely unfair. The Bill of Rights’ first amendment protects the freedom of speech, so this professor was not going against her rights. The University had no right to put her on leave because she never did anything to offend anyone. The only reason that she was put on leave was because of the amount of controversy over her comment, which was uncalled for.
    At what point do opinions expressed in social media through personal accounts become actionable? Opinions expressed in social media should not be taken very seriously due to different peoples’ sense of humor or what they think should and should not be said in the comment section of posts. However, they may become actionable once threats or very mean comments made about other people are made.

  14. Christina Zhang says:

    The punishment handed to the professor was unwarranted. She was exercising her right to free speech on a platform with expected immunity.
    Yes, the statement was insensitive because of many circumstances. One, the statement comes from a place of privilege as many people in developing countries do not have access to safe vaccinations. Many people may not have the means of transportation or health to get the vaccine. However, her statement also comes from a place of honesty. This statement can be heavily criticized, but regardless, it is still her own thought.
    Publicizing your thought should not be punished, especially in a space irrelevant to that you posted on. This only proves the university establishment to be inept in selecting its professors and inconsistent with its accountability.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *