(New York, NY) – The recent resignation of the University of Alabama’s dean of students over a series of tweets about racism threatens to chill academic speech, PEN America said in a statement today. 

On September 5, Dr. Jamie Riley, assistant vice president and dean of students at the University of Alabama, resigned from his position “by mutual agreement” with the university. His resignation occurred the day after right-wing media outlet Breitbart published an article featuring a series of tweets Riley wrote in 2016 and 2017, in which he commented on the issue of race in the U.S.

“It is difficult to see Dr. Riley’s ‘resignation by mutual agreement’ as anything other than a punitive outcome occasioned by the content of his speech,” said Jonathan Friedman, project director for campus free speech at PEN America. “Prompted by a Breitbart story aimed to discredit Riley on the basis of past tweets, the university’s acceptance of his resignation under pressure sends a chilling message to professors and administrators alike that expression of a controversial opinion could cost them their job.”

In one such tweet, from September 2017, Riley wrote, “The [American] flag represents a systemic history of racism for my people. Police are a part of that system. Is it that hard to see the correlation?” In a tweet from October 2017, Riley wrote that he was “baffled about how the 1st thing white people say is, ‘That’s not racist!’ when they can’t even experience racism? You have 0 opinion!” and in October 2016, Riley wrote, “Are movies about slavery truly about educating the unaware, or to remind Black people of our place in society?”

Riley, who wrote his doctoral dissertation for his PhD on the subject of black male students on predominantly white campuses, had previously worked in student affairs and taught courses at numerous other colleges and universities prior to his time at University of Alabama.

“Dr. Riley’s tweets were related to his area of academic expertise and his speech on political subjects is of precisely the type that a university must vigorously defend,” said PEN America’s Friedman. “The University of Alabama appears to have opted to have Dr. Riley fall on his sword rather than shoulder its own responsibility to stand up for academic freedom in the face of criticism. We ask the university to clarify the circumstances of Dr. Riley’s resignation. To the extent that it was prompted by the expression of constitutionally protected speech, the result was an unacceptable infringement on Riley’s rights and should be reversed through an offer of reinstatement.” 

PEN America has previously examined 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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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.

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