U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Erik Loomis and Free Speech

As 99% or so of folks who read this blog probably already know, Erik Loomis, a labor and environmental historian, Assistant Professor at the University of Rhode Island, and blogger at Lawyers, Guns, and Money, has been under public attack following his posting the following angry tweet a week ago today:

I was heartbroken in the first 20 mass murders. Now I want Wayne LaPierre’s head on a stick.

Loomis was initially denounced by conservatives who falsely accused him of calling for the murder of Wayne LaPierre (who is head of the National Rifle Association). Within days he had received visits from the Rhode Island State Police and his Dean.  Earlier this week, the President of the University of Rhode Island issued the following statement:

The University of Rhode Island does not condone acts or threats of violence. These remarks do not reflect the views of the institution and Erik Loomis does not speak on behalf of the University. The University is committed to fostering a safe, inclusive and equitable culture that aspires to promote positive change.

In response, bloggers at Crooked Timber, one of the leading academic blogs, issued a statement of their own on Wednesday, the nut ‘graph of which reads as follows:

Even to suggest that Loomis’s tweet constitutes a “threat of violence” is an offense against the English language. We are dismayed that the university president completely fails to acknowledge the importance of academic freedom and of scholars’ freedom independently to express views (even intemperate ones) on topics of public importance.  This statement—unless it is swiftly corrected— should give alarm to scholars at the University of Rhode Island, to scholars who might one day consider associating themselves with this institution, and to academic and professional associations that value academic freedom.

If you haven’t done so yet, please go and read the whole thing.  Among the most important other points they make is that, while this case raises issues of academic freedom, in fact, what’s happened to Loomis is part of a much broader issue: the ability that employers in general have to punish their employees for expressing unpopular political views that have no bearing whatsoever on the performance of their jobs. 

Given that Loomis does not have tenure, that some opponents were calling for his firing, and that his institution has fundamentally misrepresented his actions in a public statement, I believe it is particularly important that his fellow academics, especially those of us who also blog, to defend Loomis from these attacks. The bloggers who put together the Crooked Timber statement have asked other bloggers to support it and have set up a comment thread on which you can do so. I already have expressed my support on it (along with about a thousand others at this writing); I urge you to do so as well.*  That’s the primary purpose of this post.

Its secondary purpose is to create an open thread to discuss this case…perhaps even in an historical context (as would befit this blog).  So have at it!

A few more thoughts below the fold…

First, I wanted to link to some other materials on this case.  It was covered today by Inside Higher Ed.  The foreign policy blog Duck of Minerva also issued a statement supporting Loomis’s free speech rights.  One of the most thoughtful letters to the URI administration was written by UNM history professor Virginia Scharff.

Though the URI administration has yet to respond (at least publicly) to the criticism of its statement, some of the leading academic conservative bloggers who had attacked Loomis for his tweet have, at least, explicitly stated that he probably shouldn’t be fired (perhaps because they themselves have used violent rhetoric in the past). 

Finally, I wanted to say that my wholehearted endorsement of the Crooked Timber statement should not be read as enthusiasm for Loomis’s now-infamous tweet.  While it was in no way an incitement to violence, I’m not a great fan of violent rhetoric like this.  Loomis himself has expressed regret about employing it, if only because it (pretty predictably) became a distraction from the real issues raised by the Newtown shootings. My disagreements with using such language run a little deeper.  However, I almost didn’t add this thought to this post, because I think it is quite beside the point when one is talking about the free speech issues raised by the campaign against Loomis and addressed by the Crooked Timber statement (which are the principal topics of this post).  One does not always defend free speech that one likes…indeed, if one is committed to free speech, one often defends speech that one doesn’t.  And pointing out one’s dislikes while issuing such defenses of speech can, in a sense, detract from those defenses. 

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* It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, that I do these things as an individual and that I am not speaking for this blog nor for the Society for U.S. Intellectual History, which are not in the habit of issuing collective statements and have no plans to begin doing so at the moment.  I’d also add that I think this is basically a good thing, as issuing truly collective statements can often be a complicated and contentious matter. Indeed, even Crooked Timber attributed its statement to the individual bloggers signing it, not to the blog collectively.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Free speech absolutism causes problems similar to absolutism in politics and religion. Loomis’ timing was especially distasteful. But in this wonderful land of “almost anything goes” speechwise, those of us with a sense of propriety spend much of our lives holding our noses and averting our glances.

  2. I’m not on Twitter and if I were, I wouldn’t have said what Loomis did. However, the Crooked Timber statement, which I signed with my full name, is 100% right.

  3. Thanks for raising this topic Ben. I agree with your sentiments here and also signed my name to the Erik Loomis Statement. This was no big deal for me as I’m not an academic and risk no blow back from an unhappy administration.

    That being said it is disappointing when someone as bright as Dr. Loomis intentionally or unintentionally allows his distress to overshadow the real tragedy. Now he becomes the story and academia becomes distracted with issues of academic freedom and expression and in turn appears more interested in protecting its turf. These are important issues (which is why I signed the statement) but they are secondary to the 27 people who were murdered last week.

    I know the next time I hear of a tweet by a famous athlete or movie star that indicates the universe spins around him/her I’ll be more forgiving given that a university professor, who understands both the subtly and significance of language, couldn’t prevent himself from tweeting or retweeting that people should be killed metaphorically or otherwise particularly if the intent of the original tweet is to condemn violence!

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