In light of a recent controversy regarding Visiting Assistant Professor of Africana Studies Kwame Zulu Shabazz’s tweets and a subsequent email chain, several members of the Knox faculty and administration have discussed appropriate behavior for faculty and staff on social media.
While Vice President of Student Development Anne Ehrlich does not know if the administration searches the social media of potential candidates during the hiring process, she did admit that she checks the social media pages of people she is hiring. However, she also said that there is no way to know about every single social media account that belongs to applicants.
“In this situation, it’s challenging because Kwame claimed, in no way, to represent Knox College in his social media,” Ehrlich said. “And he has a right to his opinions and he has a right to freedom of speech, but freedom of speech is really messy and if you’re going to believe in it then you have to believe in people’s rights to say what they think.”
Ehrlich did not agree with what Shabazz wrote in his tweets. She also did not like the tweets in that students were offended and hurt by their content. She worried that the trust between young people on campus can be hurt by faculty members saying things in a public forum that challenges that trust, but also acknowledged that there is a slippery slope of censorship when someone’s right to freedom of speech is taken away.
“I think what could have been done differently, if you have the right to post your opinion on issues, but when you post those opinions, you have the responsibility to have dialogue with those who are impacted by posts,” Ehrlich said.
Professor of Political Science Sue Hulett was involved in the subsequent email chain that was sent by Shabazz to the faculty and staff distributive list, Allied Blacks for Liberty and Equality, Harambee, Lo Nuestro, M.E.Ch.A. and Islamic Club after he was accused of posting anti-Semitic tweets by a student and faculty member.
Hulett, upset with the content of the tweets, forwarded the email to Hillel Club and a few others on campus who she felt needed to see the email chain.
“Absolutely I believe in free speech. You can be nasty, you can express some crazy viewpoint, you can tell people to account, you are hopefully speaking true, and there should be no limits on that — academic free speech,” Hulett said. “Shabazz has the right to say these things. But, we should also be aware that there are consequences to what we say and blast out on social media.”
As faculty members, Hulett said they need to have a built-in censor to judge what is just and fair speech. She also stressed that there are consequences that come with freedom of speech. An employer, for example, can fire someone if they do not agree with the speech. Similarly, people can still be arrested for protesting illegally.
Professor of English Natania Rosenfeld, who is one of the few Jewish faculty members, was one of the only respondents to Shabazz’s email chain and tweets. In her emailed response, she disagreed with the content and message of the tweets, and cited them as blatantly anti-Semitic in an interview with TKS.
“Hate speech doesn’t belong anywhere and it certainly shouldn’t be coming from the computer of an academic,” Rosenfeld said. “And especially not an academic who himself studies racism and very strongly promotes anti-racism and whose life’s work seems devoted to fighting bigotry, and discrimination and oppression.”
Visiting Instructor of Art Kahlil Irving also acknowledged the difficulty social media poses for faculty members publishing their opinions online.
“Yes, it’s very complicated language and 100 or however many characters you have on Instagram or Twitter is not sufficient to truly explain,” Irving said. “So, of course people are going to get angry for things they don’t understand the true complexity of it.”