(New York)—The decision earlier this summer by Olivet Nazarene University in Illinois to fire a new professor due to the content of his recently published novel demonstrates a troubling threat to both academic and artistic freedom, PEN America said in a statement today. 

On June 28, T.J. Martinson was dismissed by Olivet Nazarene’s English department in response to complaints that the content of his recently published novel, The Reign of the Kingfisher, demonstrated “a lack of Christian morals.” An administrator told Martinson that an anonymous “constituent” of the Christian university complained that the novel included profanity and what were deemed objectionable characters, including a lesbian, a sex worker, and a character who “decides to hope instead of pray.”

Martinson had applied for the position at Olivet when nearing the completion of his Ph.D. at Indiana University-Bloomington, and his novel was already published when he was offered the position. He also reports that he made his commitments to supporting the LGTBQ community, and that the university was aware of that commitment. Martinson will not teach this year, although he will reportedly still be paid for his yearlong contract.

“A professor’s dismissal on the basis of a work of fiction suggests a disturbing climate for open inquiry and creative expression at this university,” said Jonathan Friedman, project director for campus free speech at PEN America. “Unfortunately, the circumstances of Martinson’s dismissal give the impression that the institution is more committed to quelling potential criticism and controversy than it is committed to defending the academic freedom of its faculty. While the university’s leaders may feel they have the grounds to place some restrictions on academic freedom based on the institution’s religious principles, they must also consider the consequences of such an action. In this case, dismissing Martinson over the content of his novel, including the presence of a lesbian character, sends a message of exclusion to the ONU community and is likely to have a chilling effect on the free and creative expression of students and faculty. The goal of any institution of higher learning should be to foster more openness and creativity–not hamper it.”

PEN America has previously discussed the importance of free expression, academic freedom and open inquiry on college campuses in our 2019 report, Chasm in the Classroom: Campus Free Speech in a Divided America.

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Contact: Stephen Fee, Director of Communications, sfee@pen.org, +1 202 309 8892

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. http://www.pen.org