Freedom of speech for university staff?

Put aside the more virtuous public universities, where such matters are governed by law.  What policies should private universities have toward freedom of speech for university staff?  This is not such a simple question, even if you are in non-legal realms a big believer in de facto freedom of speech practices.

Just look at companies or for that matter (non-university) non-profits.  How many of them allow staff to say whatever they want, without fear of firing?  What if a middle manager at General Foods went around making offensive (or perceived to be offensive) remarks about other staff members?  Repeatedly, and after having been told to stop.  There is a good chance that person will end up fired, even if senior management is not seeking to restrict speech or opinion per se.  Other people on the staff will object, and of course some of the offensive remarks might be about them.  The speech offender just won’t be able to work with a lot of the company any more.  Maybe that person won’t end up fired, but would any companies restrict their policies, ex ante, to promise that person won’t be fired?  Or in any way penalized, set aside, restricted from working with others or from receiving supervisory promotions, and so on?

You already know the answers to those questions.

Freedom of speech for university staff is a harder question than for students or faculty.  Students will move on, and a lot of faculty hate each other anyway, and don’t have to work together very much.  Plus the protection of tenure was (supposedly?) designed to support freedom of speech and opinion, even “perceived to be offensive” opinions.  As for students, we want them to be experimenting with different opinions in their youth, even if some of those opinions are bad or stupid.  Staff in these regards are different.

Staff are growing in numbers and import at universities.  They often are the leaders of Woke movements.  Counselors, Director of Student Affairs, associate Deans, and much more.  Then there are the events teams and the athletic departments, and more yet.  Perhaps some schools spend more on staff than on faculty?

While it is hard to give staff absolute free speech rights, it is also hard to give them differential free speech rights.  A cultural tone is set within the organization.  If everyone else has free speech rights, how exactly do you enforce restrictions on staff?  Should a university set up a “thought police” but for staff only?  Can you really circumscribe the powers of such a thought police over time?  Besides, what if a staff member signs up for a single night course?  Do they all of a sudden have the free speech rights of students?  How might you know when they are “speaking as a student” or “speaking as a staff member”?  Or what if staff are overseeing the free speech rights of faculty and students, as is pretty much always the case?  The enforcers of student free speech rights don’t have those same free speech rights themselves?  What kind of culture are they then being led to respect and maintain?  And what if staff are merely expressing their opinions off-campus, say on their Facebook pages?  Does all that get monitored?  Or do you simply encourage one set of people to selectively complain about another set, as a kind of weaponization of some views but not others?

You might have your own theoretical answers to these conundrums, but the cultural norms of large institutions usually aren’t finely grained enough to support them all.

If you think that free speech rights for university staff are an easy question, I submit you haven’t thought about this one long and hard enough.


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