Letter on the Targeted Harassment of Dwayne Booth

On Thursday, February 8th, the Executive Committee of AAUP–Penn responded to yet another campaign of targeted harassment directed against a Penn colleague, Annenberg faculty member Dwayne Booth, with the aim of silencing and punishing him for protected extramural speech. We encourage all faculty to read and circulate this message. We also commend the many faculty members who have stood up to defend the principles of academic freedom and have resisted calls for the university to discipline Booth.

We note that we sent this letter five days ago to the President, Provost, General Counsel, Chair and Vice-Chair of the Board of Trustees, Chair of the Committee on Open Expression, Chair of the Faculty Senate, and Chair of the Faculty Senate Committee on Academic Freedom.  We have received no response.

Interim President Larry Jameson
Provost John Jackson
Tulia Falleti, Chair, Faculty Senate
Raina Merchant, Chair, SCAFR
Wendy White, General Counsel
Lisa Bellini, Chair, Committee on Open Expression
Ramanan Raghavendran, Chair, Board of Trustees
Julie Beren Platt, Vice Chair, Board of Trustees

Dear Colleagues,

We write to express our concern about the targeted harassment of Annenberg faculty member Dwayne Booth, as well as Interim President Jameson’s dangerous and unwarranted response to it. Both constitute serious threats to academic freedom and to Penn’s own written policies.

The targeted harassment of Booth was instigated by the Washington Free Beacon, a publication known for political provocation whose activities conform to a well-known pattern: it singled out a faculty member who had criticized the war in Gaza and portrayed him as an antisemite, which predictably generated threats of personal violence against him and calls for the university to discipline him. In publishing the date of Booth’s next class, the newspaper endangered the physical safety of both Booth and his students.

Such harassment must be understood and publicly condemned as a threat to academic freedom, which includes the right of faculty to freedom in extramural speech—that is, speech made as a member of the public on issues of general concern. Penn’s Faculty Handbook, drawing on the AAUP’s 1940 Statement of Principles, contains strong protections for extramural speech: “When speaking or writing as an individual, the teacher should be free from institutional censorship or discipline.” This policy applies equally to all faculty members, whether tenure-track or non-tenure track. By definition, extramural speech does not constitute grounds for discipline except in the extremely rare case where such speech demonstrates that a faculty member is unfit to do the teaching and research that their job entails. The only way to make that determination is through a careful, formal review of the colleague’s entire record by their fellow faculty members in accordance with AAUP principles and the Faculty Handbook.

The purpose of targeted harassment is to intimidate all faculty into silence and to goad universities into violating their own policies on academic freedom by condemning and disciplining faculty for protected speech. Administrators, to act in the best interest of their institutions, must resist all such pressure. The national AAUP’s position is clear: “The AAUP urges administrations, governing boards, and faculties, individually and collectively, to speak out clearly and forcefully to defend academic freedom and to condemn targeted harassment and intimidation of faculty members.”

Unfortunately, Interim President Jameson has endangered academic freedom by publicly condemning Booth’s political cartoons as “reprehensible” and suggesting that he should not have published them. Jameson’s public rebuke of a faculty member for protected extramural speech imperils the academic freedom of every faculty member at Penn, and it adds fuel to the fire started by those who are actively campaigning to damage our university’s reputation and to destabilize its basic academic functioning. It gives all of us reason to wonder whether the Interim President respects the university’s own written policies, and under what circumstances he might violate them outright.

To be clear: any attempt to discipline Booth for protected extramural speech, and any attempt to do so unilaterally—denying him due process—would constitute unambiguous violations of Penn’s Faculty Handbook and the principles of academic freedom. Such action would result in an investigation of the University of Pennsylvania by the national AAUP.

We share with you guidance for administrators from Faculty First Responders, a resource created with support from the national AAUP by scholars who have studied targeted harassment as one key element of organized attacks on higher education in recent years. As their guidance makes clear, it is dangerous and self-defeating for administrators to condemn faculty members who are subject to targeted harassment:

[R]ight-wing outlets are waging a culture war against higher education in general. They are not concerned with the specifics of what happens on your campus. In fact, they will be outraged whatever you do. And, likewise, they will soon forget about this story and move on to the next one. So will the online trolls, angry alumni, and others who, in the moment, might appear to be deeply concerned about this issue. Your faculty, staff, students, and community, however, will remember how you respond to these attacks for years to come. Therefore, a strong, public defense not only demonstrates true academic leadership but also likely earns the support and gratitude of the campus community.

The fundamental duty of the university administration in a time of war and political conflict is to protect academic freedom. That means reminding the university community and the wider public in clear, unequivocal terms that faculty members’ extramural speech is protected and that harassment will not be tolerated.

We are closely monitoring this case and reporting it to the national office of the AAUP.

Executive Committee, AAUP-Penn

CC: Sarah Banet-Weiser, Dean, Annenberg School for Communication
Litty Paxton, Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies, Annenberg School for Communication
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Director, Annenberg Public Policy Center

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