NEW YORK-Rutgers University’s decision to refer adjunct lecturer Kevin Allred to temporary police custody for a mandatory psychiatric evaluation, and their subsequent suspension of Allred from his teaching duties for the remainder of the semester, is a disturbing over-reaction to Allred exercising his right to freedom of speech, PEN America said in a statement today.
According to the Associated Press, following provocative political statements on campus and on Twitter, on Tuesday, November 15, the New York Police Department escorted Allred from his home to Bellevue Hospital for a “wellness check.” After determining that he had no psychological issues, doctors released him the same night; however, on Thursday, November 17, Rutgers placed him on indefinite administrative leave.
The tweets in question appear to be from November 9: “if i see any Trump bumper stickers on the road today, my brakes will go out and i’ll run you off the road,” and “will the 2nd amendment be as cool when i buy a gun and start shooting at random white people or no…?”; and November 14: a GIF of someone burning an American flag with the caption, “mood since Tuesday night.” Allred has stated that his tweets were intended rhetorically and not meant to be real threats. Additionally, an anonymous student complaint which led to the psych evaluation claims that Allred “encouraged students to burn a flag” and cut up a flag in front of his class; Allred maintains that he simply led a class discussion on flag burning as protest.
“Verbal and written expression, including tweets, are protected by the First Amendment except in cases of imminent, specific threats of violence; Allred’s speech does not appear to cross that threshold,” noted Karin Karlekar, Director of Free Expression at Risk Programs. “PEN America is concerned about the over-zealous decision to call the police and suspend Allred and urges that a full and fair investigation be conducted into Allred’s actions before any further punitive measures are taken.”
University professors have been increasingly under attack by groups that seek to undermine their professional qualifications due to their personal beliefs, a trend most recently illustrated by a new professor watchlist launched on Monday, November 21. Adjunct professors and lecturers, who are not protected by tenure and are on semester-by-semester contracts (as Allred is), are particularly vulnerable to attacks like these as universities can quietly decide not to renew their contracts in order to protect themselves.
PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. Learn more at PEN.org.
Karin Deutsch Karlekar, Director of Free Expression at Risk Programs: [email protected], +1.646.779.4822