PEN America today called on the administration of the University of North Carolina Wilmington to condemn unequivocally expressions of religious harassment directed toward a student and other anti-gay and racist slurs by tenured criminology and sociology professor Mike S. Adams, and to take steps to assert and foster an environment of inclusivity and equality on campus.

Adams has published social media posts and commentary targeting gay people, African Americans, and Muslim Americans, including incendiary tweets comparing acceptance of LGBT people to rape, referring to gay people as “fags,” and a blog post singling out an individual student by name and ridiculing her based on her religion and sexual orientation. That student has subsequently withdrawn from the university, saying that Adams’ attacks interfered with her studies. Adams is the subject of a petition calling for his termination that has reportedly attracted at least 2,000 signatures.

The University has said in a statement that it is “deeply disappointed by the use of hateful, hurtful language to degrade a fellow human being, even when that language is legally protected speech.” It goes on to say that the case has been “fully investigated” and that the university believes “we have done all we are able to do to support the student involved, given that the comments were not made in a UNCW living, learning, or working environment or otherwise affiliated with the faculty member’s role at UNCW.” University Chancellor Jose Sartarelli has also said that “it deeply saddens me to see freedom of expression used as a weapon to degrade and demonize.” The University has stated that Adams’ speech is protected under the First Amendment.

The First Amendment of the United States Constitution imposes important constraints on the power of a state university to punish speech.  Even odious speech that has a manifestly and objectively harassing effect on individuals can be protected. The specifics of each case are relevant, and PEN America is not privy to the results of the university’s investigation into Adams’ comments. Free speech protections, however, do not prevent a university administration from unequivocally condemning hate speech and mobilizing a campus community to reject such expression in its midst.

“University leadership is right to affirm the importance of First Amendment precepts in handling the Adams case, but that does not absolve them of the obligation to address the manifest racism, religious prejudice, and anti-LGBT sentiment proffered persistently by a senior faculty member,” said Roger Normand, Interim Director of Free Expression Programs at PEN America. “The failure to take visible, concrete action to address these egregious statements and reinforce the campus’ rejection of hate speech and commitment to providing an inclusive, tolerant environment for all is inexcusable. The university’s mild expressions of ‘disappointment’ and ‘sadness’ send a message that hate speech, while not approved, will be tolerated and accepted. The university has dual obligations to uphold the First Amendment and also to create an inclusive and open learning environment for all.”

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Sarah Edkins, Deputy Director for Communications: sedkins@pen.org, +1.646.779.4830