Thursday, September 5, 2013
As reported in The Detroit News this afternoon, a Michigan State University creative writing professor and novelist, William S. Penn, has been relieved of his teaching duties by administration for his anti-conservative and anti-Republican remarks made during class.
Penn is a highly regarded writer and professor whose work often centers on his Native American/Anglo identity. For example, his 1996 creative nonfiction book, All My Sins are Relatives, won a North American Indian prose award.
Given the current constructions of the Supreme Court's 2006 decision in Garcetti v. Ceballos, Penn will have a difficult time showing he is speaking as a citizen rather than as a government employee and thus entitled to First Amendment protection. Indeed, the Sixth Circuit in Evans-Marshall v. Board of Education of Tipp City, which we discussed when it was decided in 2010, upheld the termination of a high school creative writing teacher who assigned Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. To explore that book’s theme of government censorship, she also developed an assignment based on the American Library Association's "banned books."
However, when the Sixth Circuit rejected the "academic freedom" argument of Evans-Marshall, it opined that such a concept is limited to universities and does not extend to high schools. As a university professor, Penn may have a better chance at making an academic freedom argument.
This could make a terrific in class exercise for ConLawProfs teaching First Amendment.
UPDATE: Take a look at the new Ninth Circuit opinion regarding academic freedom and Garcetti. This would substantially improve Penn's position if adopted by the Sixth Circuit.
UPDATE 2: Statement of the MSU AAUP Chapter in support of academic freedom (and further fact intvestigation).