A college free speech and liberty group is calling on the University of Colorado Boulder to restore visiting Professor John Eastman’s job duties, alleging that the campus retaliated against him for constitutionally protected speech.
In a letter sent to Chancellor Phil DiStefano on Wednesday, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education — which refers to itself as FIRE — claimed that CU Boulder’s actions are not permitted by the First Amendment and can’t be justified by the reasons offered by campus leaders.
“We call on the university to rescind the sanctions imposed on Eastman, reassure its faculty that they will not be subject to retaliatory actions for engaging in unpopular speech, and reaffirm its commitment to the First Amendment,” wrote Adam Steinbaugh, director of the individual rights defense program at FIRE.
In the letter, FIRE is described as a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to defending free speech and other civil liberties on college campuses.
The speech the letter refers to happened at a Jan. 6 rally in support of former President Donald Trump in Washington, D.C., where Eastman claimed but did not provide evidence for widespread election fraud. A mob later stormed the Capitol in an attempt to stop the certification of President Joe Biden’s electoral college victory, leading to the deaths of five people.
Eastman’s comments drew condemnation from DiStefano and the campus community. University leaders canceled his classes, citing low enrollment, on Jan. 11, and revoked his speaking and representation duties on Jan. 21. DiStefano has maintained he will not dismiss Eastman because his speech was protected by the First Amendment and university policy.
But FIRE claims that canceling Eastman’s classes, revoking his job duties and not renewing his contract is “nakedly retaliatory” and violates Eastman’s First Amendment rights, according to the letter.
“Each of the university’s responses to Eastman’s expression — including removing him from his role in organizing a lecture series and preemptively refusing to renew his contract — would, standing alone, be sufficient to deter a person of ordinary firmness from continuing to engage in protected speech,” Steinbaugh wrote. “In particular, while a university may decline to renew a contract for any lawful reason or no reason at all, it cannot do so in retaliation for the exercise of a protected right.”
CU Boulder’s decisions regarding Eastman were in accordance with its policies and authority, spokesperson Andrew Sorensen wrote in a statement sent in response to an interview request.
“Consistent with First Amendment principles and the university’s policies that protect freedom of expression, Professor Eastman is able to speak on any subject he wishes and pursue his scholarship,” Sorensen wrote.
In an interview Wednesday, Eastman said he was contacted by FIRE and is delighted the group took an interest in his situation.
“If we’re going to have a serious system of higher education, people need to get away from shutting down opposing views and actually engage them,” Eastman said. “One of the ways CU Boulder was at the forefront of that effort was having the Benson Center and bringing scholars to campus to offer those viewpoints. Canceling my classes seems antithetical to that mission and I hope they rethink it.”
The FIRE letter cites emails sent to Eastman by Benson Center for the Study of Western Civilization Director Daniel Jacobson and Provost Russell Moore, both of which were posted online by the organization.
In a Jan. 10 email, Jacobson wrote that he is changing Eastman’s courses in the next term to independent studies.
“This is a less drastic measure not only than those demanded by many hostile to the Center but also by some of its strongest supporters,” Jacobson wrote. “In addition, I’m sure you’ve gathered from the Chancellor’s statement that renewal of your appointment is out of the question.”
Eastman did “irreparable damage” to the Benson Center, Jacobson wrote, threatening “its future viability and continued existence of the (visiting scholar in conservative thought and policy.)”
“Your actions have generated hostility from all quarters. You’ve forced us into hours of meetings with antagonistic administrators and faculty. The Center has gotten terrible press due to your behavior as VSCTP, and I am informed it will get substantially worse,” he wrote. “Your actions have shown no concern for our reputation or for the continued viability of the Benson Center.”
CU Boulder has maintained that canceling Eastman’s classes for low enrollment is within university policy, but the FIRE letter claims that the application of this policy is inconsistent and that a “significant number” of classes in the College of Arts and Sciences have fewer than 15 students enrolled. The letter did not provide a source for that information.
“There is no doubt that a university can require that its classes meet a minimum enrollment to remain open,” Steinbaugh wrote. “However, any such requirement must be evenly enforced and not implemented in retaliation against protected expression.”
Moore’s letter to Eastman on Jan. 21 revoked the duties outlined in Eastman’s offer letter from CU Boulder, including initiating a speaker series, conducting outreach and speaking as a Benson Center representative.
“I take these actions because your continued pursuit of these duties for the University of Colorado Boulder is likely to be disruptive to the campus and the Benson Center,” Moore wrote. “I do not believe that you can perform these duties without damaging the interests of the campus or the Benson Center.”
If Eastman does not follow those directives, Moore wrote, it will be considered an act of insubordination and Moore will “determine an appropriate disciplinary response.”
The FIRE letter claims that the reasons given by Jacobson and Moore are not a basis for penalizing Eastman.
“To the contrary, if donor interests, public anger, reputation, or administrators’ ire are sufficient to grant the institution the authority to punish members of its faculty, then only speech popular with donors, the public, and administrators is protected,” Steinbaugh wrote. “This inverts the purpose of the freedom of expression CU Boulder purports — and is required by the First Amendment — to protect, as unpopular speech is often the very speech most in need of protection.”
The university canceled Eastman’s classes due to low enrollment in accordance with its policies, Sorensen wrote Wednesday, and Moore “appropriately relieved” Eastman of his duties at the Benson Center “because his continued performance of those duties would likely cause disruption and harm to the center.”
CU Boulder’s 2020-2021 course catalog states that classes with fewer than 20 students can be canceled.
Eastman said he is back in Boulder and conducting scholarly research but he does not have any students enrolled in independent study courses.