What Happens to Free Speech When a Professor Sues You For Libel?

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In Spring 2016, after I sent two emails asking to discuss racist incidents in a Brown University department, the head of this department reported me to Brown University as a “threat,” called me “uncivil” and “hostile,” compared me to Donald Trump, and threatened to sue me for libel.

As I never mentioned his name when I accused the department of racism, it could be either his “CSI: New York” foundation in law or his arrogance that convinced him that such a suit is possible. Several deans and law professors have confirmed that he has absolutely no grounds for a libel case and that I never even violated the Code of Student Conduct. But a successful suit was never his goal.

His goal was to make me write anonymously. It was to make me unable to name him. He has bullied me into submission. His threat is why I could not present to my class a final project that discussed the racism I experienced from this department. It is why, in the heart of finals period, I had to meet with deans, file reports, and worry for my financial safety, all due to my decision to speak.

I should have been able to name his racism without fear of a lawsuit. As academic institutions and the legal system constantly fail to protect people of color from racism, public exposés are often our only option.

But the simple threat of a libel suit from a white male professor against a teenage student of color does the job of silencing me. Can I sue the professor for his racism? For his threats? For the abuse of his tenure? No. I have finals. I don’t have the financial independence. I don’t know any lawyers. I have parents that would be furious and stop me. National media would laugh at me and my name would be smeared and preserved in Google search results. The legal system—which only recognizes racism if someone explicitly says the equivalent of, “I hate people of color, so I did this act”—would reject me as a race-baiter. The professor knows this.

When a professor with so much power infringes upon the legal right of students to engage with and critique actions sponsored by the department, the professor has infringed upon the role of the University as a site of conflict and education. A professor who uses his power to shut down anti-racist dialogue does so at the cost of educational experiences for his students or for himself. Such professors are tenured at Brown University.

The Provost’s Office has failed to teach professors about marginalized identities and abusive power dynamics, has failed to implement student feedback, and has failed to build effective systemic protections for students who are facing abusive tenured professors. All the while, the entire University depends on the overworked and understaffed Office of Institutional Diversity to cover the many cases of racial harassment at this University. I question what real protections students of color have on this campus and whether the University even cares to protect us. I question whether the University values our speech and bodies. I question whether I should encourage other students of color to attend this University, which protects bullies.

Over two dozen University employees, ranging from professors, deans, staff, directors, and vice presidents, have thanked me, personally, for my uncompensated “diversity and inclusivity” work. If these same people are somehow incapable of protecting me from threats due to this very same work by citing the professor’s tenure—which apparently makes them divinely untouchable—it exposes the true façade of diversity at Brown.

Brown’s is a diversity characterized by filling classrooms with photo-friendly faces of color without any care to protect them from racism. This is a diversity centered on Brown the Corporation, instead of on the well-being of students of color. This is a diversity that brutalizes students of color while simultaneously depending upon their uncompensated labor for the University’s countless “diversity” initiatives.

Brown University has normalized the abuse and ill-treatment of its student leaders, whom the University depends on for the creation and execution of its recently-released (and thoroughly-applauded) $100 million diversity plan. Many of the mandatory departmental Diversity and Inclusion Action Plans under this new initiative have in fact been almost entirely written by unpaid student leaders and co-opted by professors. These professors write in the changes we demand, but obstruct the very same policies—policies that could be immediately acted upon—with excuses, saying “give us time,” “at least we’ve done this much,” and “the plan is a long-term goal, we have to ease into it.” What type of university considers the safety of students “delayable”?

What the USA does not understand and does not seek to understand is that it is worse to be a victim of racism than to be called a racist. What Freedom of Speech Warriors don’t understand is that freedom of speech does not exist for students of color. Every time we decide to speak our truth, countless systems bully us into silence, through deliberately mis-framed media articles, threats, lawsuits, or destabilized job security. When people preach the “free exchange of ideas” without recognition of power dynamics, they reveal the self-serving purpose behind their passion. Freedom of speech is for white people and people of color who remain silent about racism.

I call upon these Free Speech Warriors, these lovers of the Free Exchange of Ideas; President Christina Paxson, Professors Ken Miller and David Josepheson: Will you protect me? Will you provide lawyers if the professor decides to file suit? Do I have your freedom of speech? Is Brown University a place for the Free Exchange of Ideas, or only for the ideas that protect the University? Will you finally understand how freedom of speech does not exist for people like me? Will you finally pay me for all the work I’ve done for this university, for doing what should have been your job?

Protect me or let your hypocritical helplessness be exposed. The world should be watching.

And remember this: my experience is our constant reality. While you may be shocked that I was treated like this, my fellow marginalized students are shocked for a different reason—that I decided to speak.

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