Court rules rights for public college faculty are uncertain

A recent ruling by a federal appeals court stated that it is unclear if public college faculty members have First Amendment protection for criticisms they make against administrators.

This finding is especially shocking considering most people’s assumption that everyone’s speech is protected under the Bill of Rights. The recent ruling raises the question of First Amendment protection for faculty on Carnegie Mellon’s own campus.

Freedom of speech is guaranteed under the Bill of Rights, despite job or position in society. However, uncertainty arose concerning the protection of First Amendment rights for public college faculty members after the federal appeals court ruling on Nov. 12.

The court case in question was an appeal of a lawsuit by Juan Hong, a retired chemical engineering professor of the University of California at Irvine, who claims that he was unjustly denied a merit raise due to comments that he made in faculty meetings.

According to an Inside Higher Ed news article, Hong allegedly offended the administration by stating that his department was heavily relying on part-time instructors, demanding that students deserved full-time professors.

Without the protection and assurance of free speech, faculty members are in jeopardy of being censored by their administrations. They cannot make criticisms of any sort for fear that they could potentially lose their jobs or, as in Hong’s case, be denied a raise.

In response to the news of the court case, Maggie Kowalski, a sophomore economics and Chinese double major, stated, “I feel that you can’t just waive someone’s right to free speech, especially if someone’s intent was not malicious. I see no reason why a merit-based raise would be revoked for criticism that was not intended to harm the organization. Rather, it seems it was intended to improve the organization.”

The judicial precedent to Hong’s case is the 2006 Supreme Court decision Garcetti v. Ceballos, which limited the First Amendment rights of public employees performing their official duties, although Supreme Court judges suggested that the ruling would not apply to public higher education.

However, courts retain the right to apply this ruling to other cases concerning faculty members of public colleges, thereby limiting the rights of faculty members.

In relation to Hong’s recent case, the district court ruled that discussing department personnel is included in the official duties of professors. Hence, in accordance with the Garcetti v. Ceballos case, faculty members are not entitled to First Amendment protection. This means that any criticism made by public college faculty members of their superiors could be legally punishable.

Although Carnegie Mellon University does not fall under the category of a public college, this recent ruling raises comparisons to be made between the two types of education institutions. Do students feel that Carnegie Mellon is any different?

“If a ruling applies to government employees, I see no reason why the ruling shouldn’t extend to professors who work under the public education system,” Shilpa Balaji, a sophomore computer science major and a captain of Carnegie Mellon’s Mock Trial team, stated.
“However, this in no way implies that the same ruling should extend to professors at a private university. Private institutions should be entitled to uphold their own standards, as long as they don’t infringe on anyone’s rights.”

According to Carnegie Mellon’s faculty handbook, “A member of the faculty may express in the classroom his or her own opinions on matters relevant to his or her courses…. When dealing with controversial matters, he or she must take reasonable care in the selection and balanced presentation of material, and must try to make clear distinctions between statements of fact and opinion.... When [the faculty] engage in non-university activities, faculty members are expected to make clear that they act as individuals and not as spokesmen for the university…. It is the duty of the [Faculty] Senate to be alert and informed concerning matters involving instruction, scholarly or cultural activities, or any other matters pertaining to the general welfare of the faculty or of the academic community as a whole.”

Professors’ criticisms about the administration or to superiors are not malicious and are received constructively.

“I feel that the faculty is aptly able to criticize changes all the time. My professors, specifically in my computer science classes, are free to make their opinions known of the recent changes that have occurred in their department,” said Bryan Wade, a sophomore economics major.

Carnegie Mellon strives to remain a top educational institution and thus tries to improve its organizations and administrations. Fortunately, professors here are ensured their full constitutional rights whether or not it pertains to official duties, unlike in Hong’s court case.