ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

Punishment of Speech at the Merchant Marine Academy

August 16, 2012 by Anne D. Neal

Should this professor be dismissed, his career effectively ruined? According to the dean of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, the only appropriate sanction against Professor Gregory F. Sullivan is to dismiss him for his tasteless joke. As students prepared to watch a video in the dark, Sullivan remarked that they should rush for the exit if anyone with orange hair appeared. The reference was to James E. Holmes, who had dyed his hair bright orange before his (alleged) rampage in a Colorado movie theater. As it turns out, one of the students in the class had a relative killed in the deadly shooting in Aurora, CO, and complained about the professor. And one can surely understand why such a statement would be distressing and hurtful. But upsetting someone—especially unintentionally—does not warrant overturning the First Amendment. And to suggest otherwise—particularly in a college classroom—does every student a disservice and invites a dangerous policing of both speech and thought. Yes, the professor's comment was uncalled for, uncouth and insensitive. But it was an innocent mistake, an isolated incident, by all accounts, and followed by an apology. Here, as in too many places, campus administrators only want the free speech that comes with freedom from all offense. That's dead wrong. Make this a teaching moment for the First Amendment, as well as civility, and restore the professor to his classroom!

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