Diana Wallens: Universities should fire professors for hateful online comments

Colleges’ faculty members use social media just how most other people do. Sometimes they share major personal milestones with friends and family and sometimes they post funny anecdotes. But faculty, like some other people, may sometimes post political assertions that contain hate speech or offensive language.

Hate speech goes beyond language that might make someone uncomfortable. According to the American Bar Association, hate speech “offends, threatens or insults groups based on race, color, religion, sexual orientation, etc.” Of course, hate speech isn’t a new idea. But social media has become an easy way for people to spread hateful comments, and those who might normally keep hateful ideas to themselves may feel more comfortable airing their beliefs online.

Other universities’ faculty have been some of those people to air hateful opinions online. At Concordia University, a professor was fired for comments she made online about National Football League player Colin Kaepernick’s protests. A professor at the University of Virginia posted a Facebook status equating the Black Lives Matters movement to the Ku Klux Klan, but the university didn’t fire the professor, citing his right to free speech.

Unfortunately, these incidents of professors using offensive language online are not isolated and are prevalent on various campuses. These online posts use harsh language to disparage specific religious, ethnic or racial groups, and members of these groups are likely in classes these professors teach. Because of that, faculty members should be fired if they are found to have posted hate speech on social media or elsewhere on the internet.

GW’s faculty handbook and faculty code of conduct don’t lay out specific policies for what would happen to professors who post hateful messages online. And University spokesman Tim Pierce declined to comment on whether the University would fire a professor who posted hate speech online. At this time, the only guidance on this topic is within the University’s ethical statement, which says that GW is a diverse community in which everyone should be respected.

Faculty members, of course, have the right to use social media, and could even use it as a way to connect with students outside of the classroom. But just like my peers and I are taught to be careful of what we post because an employer may see it, professors should think in the same way. Faculty have to be able to teach and converse with all types of students, and racially charged or offensive social media posts might make a positive professor-student relationship impossible in some cases.

Without swift negative consequences for hate speech, it soon becomes normalized within a community, and students may feel like they aren’t safe in class. This vicious cycle must be instantly nipped in the bud to prove that colleges stand for acceptance, not rejection, of students and faculty members from all backgrounds.

Fortunately, several universities have demonstrated that they find professors’ online bigotry intolerable. Oberlin College’s recent firing of an assistant professor for anti-Semitic Facebook posts is a good example of the way to handle a professor’s online comments. The posts included claims that Israel was responsible for the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris and that ISIS is actually part of Israeli and U.S. intelligence agencies. Oberlin’s board of trustees, taking into account the national rise in campus anti-Semitism, voted to fire her. The board showed a commitment to upholding high moral standards on campus and condemning unethical, damaging behavior.

Oberlin’s swift action in removing a professor who used hate speech online should be copied by GW if a similar incident were to occur. Because there is no current policy for GW faculty members, the University must hold its faculty to the ethical code it does lay out. If members of the faculty community are openly intolerant of any race, religion or ethnicity, then they cannot be trusted to provide a welcoming environment to all students.

Of course, keeping track of faculty members’ social media pages isn’t possible. But if a student or other community member reports inappropriate online material by a professor, the University should investigate it.

When one an employee posts hate speech on social media, universities should ensure that he or she faces consequences. Otherwise, officials allow unacceptable behavior to continue on campus. Professors and students should know that hate speech in any form is not OK. Colleges, by the example they can set firing faculty members, can lead the way in teaching students and faculty tolerant ways to interact on social media.

Diana Wallens, a sophomore majoring in criminal justice, is a Hatchet opinions writer. Want to respond to this piece? Submit a letter to the editor.

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