Honestly grappling with the past, including the frank and fair study of difficult topics, is at the heart of the historical profession. Academic freedom enables history educators to conduct research, teach students, and produce scholarship related to their areas of expertise without fear of personal attacks or professional threats to their livelihoods and careers.
In recent years, there has been an alarming rise in incidents in which history educators are targeted because their expertise and pedagogies touch on topics that seem to speak to a culture war du jour. These attacks have been directed at historians working at every level of the educational system and in public history contexts. These incidents have sometimes resulted in choreographed media and social media outrages calling for—and occasionally leading to—disciplinary action. When disciplinary action results from targeted harassment of educators it is a fundamental threat to academic freedom, serving to silence substantive historical analysis through intimidation and control.
In order to ensure that history educators are able to work without intimidation or fear of retaliation, their academic freedom must be protected from the following threats:
- Targeted online harassment, which identifies specific educators and alleges discrimination on the basis of their teaching and/or academic expertise.
- Disciplinary action against history educators on the basis of their curricula, scholarship, or writing.
Educational institutions must resist calls to discipline or fire history teachers in these kinds of controversies. They must uphold the “transcendent value” of academic freedom—including the freedom to say unpopular things—as affirmed by the Supreme Court in Keyishian v. Board of Regents in 1967.
What is Targeted Harassment and What Is Not?
Targeted harassment goes beyond mere criticism of individuals by students or members of the community. Targeted harassment refers to attacking an individual using threats and coercion. The practice of targeted harassment can take the form of publication of the personal information (doxxing), direct threats to the individual and their family, coordinated harassing calls to the department, institution, or administration, and even the manipulation of reviews on websites like RateMyProfessors.com for political motives. Much of the media’s attention to this issue has focused on university campuses and attacks on professors. Student complaints against professors and campus protests—while they may potentially undermine academic freedom—do not constitute targeted harassment. While students may make individual or group complaints against individual professors for behavior in the classroom by going through institutional channels or even writing petitions to administrators, we see a difference between student complaints regarding classroom behavior and organized mass harassment campaigns, which typically include significant off-campus participation and more coercive and threatening attacks intended to punish the exercise of political speech.
Sources and Reasons for Targeted Harassment
Targeted harassment may appear spontaneous, but studies of these attacks by numerous journalists and the AAUP demonstrate that such attacks are driven by a small number of organizations, funded by an even smaller circle of large donors, and follow a common pattern, beginning with out-of-context and sensationalized reports published on websites such as “Campus Reform” or “The College Fix.” Following that, the report is picked up by conservative television news, and waves of harassing and threatening emails and phone calls to the faculty member and the institution follow. As Isaac Kamola wrote in a study for the AAUP, “attacks follow a common logic: stoke outrage in ways that fuel the now-common narrative that college professors are recklessly irresponsible and dangerous. These individual attacks, however, also have a larger political objective. They use these examples to generally discredit colleges and universities, painting them as places that shelter and enable deviant and socially unacceptable ideas. The result is a manufactured narrative wielded by billionaire donors to suggest that parents, students, state governments, foundations, and other funders of higher education demand greater oversight over these apparently untrustworthy and unruly faculty.” (Read Isaac Kamola’s AAUP study.)
While some of these campaigns may arise spontaneously from student activists following a report on a local educator, many such attacks target those already identified on Turning Point USA’s “professor watchlist” because of publications espousing liberal or left-leaning political views. The AAUP compares such political campaigns that use individual professors to attack universities in general to earlier attacks by the John Birch Society in the 1960s and the “Accuracy in Academia” movement of the 1980s. (Read the AAUP’s article on Targeted Online Harassment of Faculty.)
Select Case Studies
Johnny Eric Williams, Trinity College
Dr. Williams was suspended from his position at Trinity College after his comments about the history of African American responses to police violence that were taken out of context in a post on “Campus Reform.”
Lora D. Burnett, Collin College
Dr. Burnett was fired from her position at Collin College after Campus Reform and Fox News attacked her for a tweet criticizing the Vice President during one of the 2020 Vice Presidential debates.
Dana Cloud, Syracuse University
Dr. Cloud’s administration supported her following a social media attack on her for a tweet she posted about attending an anti-fascist protest.
Amanda Gailey and Courtney Lawton, University of Nebraska, Lincoln
Dr. Gailey and Ms. Lawton were both targeted by right-wing activists following a story about their presence protesting the group Turning Point USA on campus. Dr. Gailey retained her position, but Ms. Lawton, a graduate student, was dismissed—in violation of due process, according to the AAUP.
Dr. Cichiarello-Maher resigned from his position at Drexel University after a series of campaigns against him for tweets that led to his suspension and ultimately included over 800 threatening emails, including threats against his child.
Tennessee coach and teacher fired by the school board for teaching Ta-Nehsi Coates.
Texas high school principal was accused by a group of parents of embracing critical race theory. The district responded by suspending Whitfield and threatening not to renew his contract, though they refused to confirm that CRT was the reason for the suspension.
Recommendations and Best Practices
- Understand when attacks are politically motivated rather than spontaneous reactions
- Trust the faculty member being attacked; do not give the “benefit of the doubt” to attackers’ version of the story
- Publicly defend academic freedom and faculty governance
- Refer to these events as attacks and name the attacker
- Preemptively plan for attacks with social media policies and public recognition of academic freedom and free speech
- Adhere to established policies rather than reacting through “ad-hoc” processes
- Consider taking steps to ban the surreptitious recording of classroom activity