The pending disciplinary action against Rutgers professor James Livingston, following his personal Facebook posts denouncing gentrification and whiteness, reflects a wrong-headed approach that threatens free expression on Rutgers’ campus, PEN America said today.

On May 31, Rutgers professor James Livingston posted a series of denunciations of gentrification in his Harlem neighborhood, during which he declared he “hates white people” announced his intent to “resign from my race,” and stated “I just don’t want little Caucasians overrunning my life.” Livingston, who is white, is a tenured professor of history.

Shortly after a barrage of critical coverage of Livingston’s post by right-leaning media outlets, university officials at Rutgers launched an internal investigation, which found Livingston in violation of the university’s Policy Prohibiting Discrimination and Harassment. Rutgers has since rejected Livingston’s August 10 appeal of the verdict, and the professor now faces disciplinary action “up to and including discharge.”

Rutgers’ investigation found that Livingston’s speech was subject to university policy because his speech could impact the university’s mission, arguing that his statements may disrupt “the university’s core function of educating a diverse student body” and “have inflicted reputational damage on the university . . . which could realistically impact recruitment and fundraising in the future.” Absent any evidence of such ill consequences the prospect that personal, satirical comments on a Facebook page could impair the university’s mission or inflict reputational harm is spurious.  We understand that no one has come forward to say that they have experienced either harassment or discrimination based on Livingston’s post, nor can we readily conceive of anyone who might. On the contrary, failure to uphold protections for free speech and pandering to critics pose serious risks for the stature of the university.  

“While ardor in addressing genuine racism is laudable, Rutgers is deeply misguided in applying a harassment and discrimination policy to police personal speech of faculty that has reportedly not even given rise to a complaint on campus,” said PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel. “If Rutgers’ policy dictates discipline in such a case, it’s hard to fathom how it would pass muster under the First Amendment. The application of overbroad strictures on speech risks a chilling effect not just on academic freedom, but on all forms of speech that are part of the personal lives of Rutgers employees. Rutgers has professed dedication to academic freedom through its Policy on Academic Freedom and the public commitments of its President. We hope that President Barchi and other Rutgers administrators will honor those commitments now, and abandon this baseless pending disciplinary action.”

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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. pen.org

CONTACT: Anoosh Gasparian, External Relations Manager: agasparian@pen.org