Ozzie Guillen just became the latest person from the world of sports to find out that free speech isn’t necessarily free. The Miami Marlins manager gave the offhand political opinion to Time magazine that he “respects” Fidel Castro for staying alive the last sixty years. He then found himself swamped in the attendant right-wing hysteria and was suspended for five games without pay; his job is still hanging in the balance. I know that people will say the First Amendment is solely about the government’s not restricting the rights to speech, but the idea that we don’t have the basic freedom to voice ideas that might offend our employers is both chilling and all too familiar in the world of sports. Guillen joins athletes like Craig Hodges, Mahmoud Abdul Rauf, Rashard Mendenhall, Toni Smith and many others as high-profile cultural object lesson for everyone in the country: shut your mouth and don’t rock the boat.
Both the irony and urgency should be obvious. The space where we can reasonably be heard is becoming constricted exactly at the moment when people are beginning to break out of their shells. We have seen both the Occupy movement and the national struggle to win justice for Trayvon Martin present a new willingness to fight. Attacks on speech are efforts to strangle that impulse in its crib. That’s what makes the legal case of Northeastern Illinois University Professor Loretta Capeheart so critical for anyone who cares about freedom of speech and the ability for us to actually be able to shape our surroundings without fear.
Capeheart is a tenured professor at NEIU, perhaps the state of Illinois’s most affordable and diverse institution of higher learning. She is also a vocal union and anti-war activist of many years standing. Understandably, anti-war students sought her out as a group-adviser during President Bush’s war on Iraq. When two students were arrested for peacefully protesting a CIA recruitment station, the weight fell on Capeheart. School President Sharon Hahs denied Capeheart merit raises and department chair positions and attacked her in public meetings. Hahs also threatened students and other faculty, saying that everyone better be ready to “accept the consequences” for their actions.
Capeheart, despite the absence of any financial banking, went deeply into debt and took her case to court. After a four-year legal battle, a federal judge just ruled that he agreed with NEIU’s lawyers. He said professors have no right to free speech under the Supreme Court’s hideous 2006 decision Garcetti v. Ceballos, a case that denied public employees the right to criticize their superiors. But as awful as the Garcetti decision was, the High Court made clear in a footnote that their decision shouldn’t apply to academic settings. The judge in Capeheart’s case disagreed and gave not just Sharon Hahs and NEIU but every school license to crack down.
The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) said that the judge’s ruling “is chilling and clear: university administrators need not tolerate outspoken faculty dissent on matters of broad public concern or on the university’s institutional response to those concerns.”