Students Demand Pitt Eliminate Free Speech Protections

Student group coalition calls for firing of professors it deems "racist"

Screenshot from Twitter
July 5, 2020

Activists are demanding that the University of Pittsburgh fire any employee deemed racist or discriminatory by students, a move that First Amendment advocates say amounts to the elimination of academic freedom.

Black Pitt, a coalition of black student groups, is demanding that the university fire any employee dubbed "racist" by a black-only student council and end employee speech immunity, a core principle of academic freedom and First Amendment protections for academics at public universities.

"Faculty and staff with one incident or complaint of racial bias, excessive force, or unlawful arrest/detainment should be terminated and banned from the University campus immediately if found at fault," the letter reads. "During the time of the investigation, the faculty/staff should be disclosed by name and banned from the University campus until its completion."

Discrimination and racial bias policies already exist on Pitt's campus, but as a public university, there are few restrictions the school can place on a professor's right to free speech. Katlyn Patton, spokeswoman for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, told the Washington Free Beacon that Pitt is bound by the First Amendment when disciplining professors for their commentary.

"As a public institution, the University of Pittsburgh is bound by the First Amendment in its decisions concerning when to discipline a professor," Patton said. "While these students are free to express their concerns and propose ideas, Pitt, like any public college or university, must consider the protections afforded to professors by the First Amendment and the principles of academic freedom in evaluating allegations of racial bias based on speech."

Black Pitt, which did not return a request for comment, went further than merely targeting speech on campus. The list of demands includes a black-only graduation, an overhaul of university curriculum to be more "inclusive and comprehensive regarding the plight and triumphs of black people" and to "include the black narrative," an established master's and Ph.D. program in "black studies," and for the university to sever ties with the city of Pittsburgh's police department.

The Pittsburgh Bureau of Police told the Washington Free Beacon that it has no position on which entities the university chooses to invest in or divest from, including its own police force. The University of Pittsburgh police department did not respond to requests for comment.

Pitt has long sided with liberal demands on campus. In 2018, the university levied a $5,546.52 security fee on the College Republicans two days before conservative commentator Ben Shapiro was scheduled to speak on campus. The fee came after liberal students opposed Shapiro's appearance, calling him a "white supremacist," "misogynist," and "fascist." The Young America's Foundation threatened to take legal action against Pitt if they did not drop the fee.

The University of Pittsburgh did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Pat McMahon, a university spokesman, told Pitt News the university is giving the document "serious consideration." Black Pitt called on university administrators to implement all of its demands by the start of the 2020-2021 school year.