Jury Punishes AU Over Free Speech Violation

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CONTRIBUTED BY
JOHN BANZHAF

OPINION —

A jury has just imposed a whopping $500,000 verdict in punitive damages, in addition to a verdict of $145,000 for compensatory damages for harm actually suffered, against Auburn University in Lee County, Alabama, for retaliating against a tenured professor for voicing concerns about its dumbing down of certain courses.

In essence, Michael Stern, a tenured economics professor, was removed as chair of the Department of Economics, a position he had held since 2010, because he spoke out about what appeared to be a program of using an academic major of limited value and easy courses — which had in fact been recommended for closure — which enabled its student athletes, especially football players, to remain eligible to play.

This decision is important because it emphasizes not only that university professors have a right to speak out in public about perceived wrongdoing on their own campus, but that violations of that right can result in significant financial penalties for their institution, said John Banzhaf, a public interest law professor.

It’s also important because the possibility of such a whopping verdict may encourage other professors to “Sue The […],” when they are similarly punished for expressing their views, even if they aren’t fired as a result.

It will also make attorneys more willing to take on such cases. If they do, they can use the Auburn verdict as a powerful argument and strong negotiation tool, said Banzhaf,

This new decision comes a half-century after the similar Pickering case went all the way to the Supreme Court, and won a public high school teacher and all public employees First Amendment speech rights.

It also comes just about a month after a major controversy erupted with a report that New York University had fired a distinguished professor when students complained that his class was just too tough for them.

So, argues Banzhaf, it looks like universities are adopting several different tactics to retain post-COVID Gen. Z students who are threatening to drop out, and thereby slash their university’s tuition income, because they are finding at least some courses too tough:

■ set up gut (“embarrassingly easy”) courses, or even dumbed-down programs and majors for weak students, especially athletes,

■ pressure or even fire professors who refuse to dumb down their own courses and

■ also pressure or even fire professors who complain about such tactics.

Lawsuits can help fight this tendency of “defining mediocrity down,” similar to the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s prophecy about “defining deviancy down,” Banzhaf said.

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