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Debate on speech ethics at CMU heats up after Grenell's election misinformation

President Farnam Jahanian issued a statement on Nov. 18 responding to a student letter asking for Richard Grenell to be held accountable for his actions after being hired as Senior Fellow for the Institute for Politics and Strategy (IPS). President Jahanian's letter characterized Grenell's posts on social media, which have been seen as spreading misinformation and sinophobic, as expressions of Grenell's right to free speech. He also mentioned the formation of a new Commission on Academic Freedom and Freedom of Expression, which was further elaborated on in his Dec. 3 statement.

While there was controversy over Grenell's hiring in August, Grenell's recent actions are now seen in a different light. As an employee of Carnegie Mellon, he is now also subject to the Code of Business Ethics and Conduct. Many have argued that his actions as a Senior Fellow have been in violation of the policies outlined in the document, including the clause to conduct "all business and related professional activities in good faith and with fairness, accuracy, integrity and respect for others."

"One big requirement of the code of conduct, at this university, is the principle of respect for persons," said Denise Rousseau, who was on the committee that evaluated Grenell's appointment in August. "The idea that in our behavior, that we show a sort of respect for the integrity the value the autonomy of the other humans with whom we work, or who are in the public, because one of the features of academic freedom is it's not unconditionally given, that there are responsibilities as well as rights."

She added that "it's one thing to criticize what Mr. Grenell has done prior to coming because he wasn't a CMU staff member. It is another world once he's here."

Some are concerned about the misinformation Grenell has spread on social media and are uncertain whether his speech and behavior as a representative of the university should be viewed as a First Amendment issue.

Rousseau and Lisa Tetrault, an associate professor of history, reference the "falsely yelling fire in a crowded theater" analogy from the Schenck v. United States ruling used to illustrate the harm caused by false and dangerous speech, which, under the ruling and subsequent rulings, is not protected under the First Amendment.

"Speech that people make doesn't have to be truthful. Doesn't have to be trustworthy, freedom of speech means we can say what we want, as long as we don't say it in a way that it actually imposes immediate harm like calling fire in a crowded theater." She adds that "academic freedom is different because one of the issues and obligations in academic freedom is the issue of truth telling."

"An institution of higher education should be a defender of facts," Tetrault said, "and Mr. Grenell's behavior distorts facts."

However, some, including President Jahanian, believe that Grenell's behavior is not dangerous enough to merit being categorized as a threat, and that his hiring and actions after being hired are protected under First Amendment rights.

"Although CMU is a private institution, we uphold the First Amendment right of freedom of expression for all students, faculty and staff through our Freedom of Expression policy, as do almost all of our peer private institutions," said President Jahanian in a statement to The Tartan. "There are limited exceptions to this protection, including speech that would qualify under the First Amendment as harassment, obscenity, defamation, and 'true threats' (e.g., inciting violence or threatening harm to a specific individual). These exceptions typically have been enforced very narrowly by the courts, recognizing the fundamental role that free speech plays in our democracy."

Randal Bryant, who was also on the committee that reviewed Grenell’s hiring, shares a similar sentiment. Bryant says that the original report "cited a 70-year-old definition of academic freedom that called for people, in everything they do, to be respectful of others. And I still think that's an ideal that we should strive for.” “Honestly,” he continued, “I think Mr. Grenell would have more impact [if] he did so.”

However, Bryant says that since the report’s publishing, he’s come to understand that the years-old definition of academic freedom might not hold today. He stated a “few court cases regarding academic freedom that have been more in the direction of saying, ‘you really can't abridge First Amendment rights, even for academics.’” Because of this, Bryant says the university should “move then to an idea of saying ‘you should be respectful for others, but we're not allowed to make rules that abridge people's rights.’"

President Jahanian has created the Commission on Academic Freedom and Freedom of Expression to discuss the issues raised by Grenell's actions after the university hired him. However, academic freedom does not necessarily equate to freedom of expression; different individuals on campus disagree on whether it is academic freedom, the First Amendment's right to freedom of speech, or both that are at question here.

"We recognize that the two closely linked but distinct values of academic freedom and freedom of expression are not absolute, and that the boundaries that historically have applied to each should be further examined in today’s context,” President Jahanian said in his Dec. 3 statement on the new Commission on Academic Freedom and Freedom Expression. “However,” the statement continued, “together they serve as the foundations of what we do at Carnegie Mellon."

Bryant said that the August committee "did not do an in-depth study of the issue" and that as a member of the new commission, he believes part of the purpose of the commission is to "come to a fuller understanding of what academic freedom is and what its implications are."

"I think it's especially an important question now because of social media and things have really changed a lot in terms of how people communicate, what style they use, and so forth," Bryant said. "I think its rhetoric is designed, as a lot of Twitter rhetoric is designed, to sort of fire up his base and get them excited and rile up his opponents." He adds that "it's certainly not a very useful way to converse and talk or raise arguments. But then he does have First Amendment rights and I think that we have to be very careful."

Some have expressed concern over the idea that Grenell should face punitive action. Tetrault expressed that while she did not particularly care about what would happen to Grenell, she believed that the university should take a stand against his actions, as "to not condemn his actions perpetuates the erosion of democracy." Paul Eiss, associate professor of history, wrote in a letter to the editor a similar request asking that President Jahanian directly address students’ concerns of whether Grenell's actions infringed upon Carnegie Mellon's values.

Grenell's hiring has raised many questions over the rights and responsibilities of his ambiguous academic position that IPS director Kiron Skinner created for Grenell, and who should be involved in the appointment of staff members, as the current structure leaves most of the decision-making power to the department head.

"He's a staff member. He's not an academic," Rousseau said. She described that while "these freedom issues clearly apply to any faculty member," those rules do not necessarily apply to staff members. Grenell’s position on campus is comparable to a researcher in the Robotics Institute or the Software Engineering Institute, which are funded by outside sources like the Department of Defense. IPS is primarily funded by conservative organizations like the Scaife Foundation and the Bradley Foundation, and Grenell, as a research employee whose position is funded by outside sources, may not have the same responsibilities as a tenured professor.

"You'll never fully understand your organization's processes and procedures until you have a challenging case, until you have somebody who is different from the other people who've gone through the process or procedure in the past," Rousseau said. "It provides us a way of learning about our processes and learning about our practices and where we're fuzzy and we need to be clearer." She felt the core values of Carnegie Mellon are "being reaffirmed by this process. I don't feel they're threatened at all. I think they're being activated again, activated in a real salient way."