Dozens of academics, free speech advocates, and bold-type authors, actors, and musicians — including Salman Rushdie, Joyce Carol Oates, and Rosanne Cash — have come to the defense of a Babson College employee who was fired earlier this month for a satirical Facebook post made as President Trump threatened Iran.
PEN America, a literary nonprofit and human rights organization, is the latest group to jump into the intense debate over free speech on college campuses sparked by the firing of Asheen Phansey, who was Babson’s director of sustainability, a graduate of the Wellesley school, and an adjunct professor there.
Earlier this month, in a response to a threat by Trump to target Iranian cultural sites, Phansey wrote that Iran’s leader should “tweet a list of 52 sites of beloved American cultural heritage that he would bomb. Um . . . Mall of America? . . . Kardashian residence?”
PEN America organized an open letter to the college, signed by five organizations and nearly 160 people, including some Babson professors, and called Phansey’s dismissal “disturbing” and urged the school to reinstate him.
“Against a national backdrop in which punishments for speech are chilling open discourse, this draconian outcome risks compounding the constrictions on our public discourse,” the letter reads. “As an institution of higher learning, Babson should be on the side of defending free thought, rather than punishing it.”
Babson declined to comment further about its decision, referring to previous statements about the matter. The college has said that Phansey’s post on his personal Facebook page did not “represent the values and culture of the College. . . . Babson College condemns any type of threatening words and/or actions condoning violence and/or hate.”
Colleges have been wrestling in recent years with how to handle a variety of free speech issues, from whether to open their campuses to controversial speakers to professors who make provocative statements that go viral. And in an increasingly polarized country, where a private social media post can result in a public flogging, colleges are often left in the unenviable position of drawing fire from all sides.
“Everybody knows everything about everyone and everybody judges,” said Larry Ladd of Falmouth a consultant for the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.
Ladd said colleges have to look out for the rights of the students, faculty, and employees, but also must ensure that the institution’s reputation and culture are protected. If Babson officials thought that Phansey’s post ran counter to its values, it had good reason to fire him, Ladd said.
“He had a right as an individual to make the post; he doesn’t have a right to have a job with an employer that doesn’t like that,” Ladd said.
The First Amendment protects political speech at public universities, but employees at private institutions have fewer safeguards. Tenure provides academics some freedom to express their opinion without censure, but that is usually reserved for long-term and more permanent faculty, Ladd said.
The post was soon picked up and criticized by Turtleboy Sports, a local blog that takes on “social justice warriors” and Boston sports teams. Before long, news organizations picked up the story and social media networks, including Twitter, were alight with calls for Phansey to be fired. Phansey’s critics urged others to call and e-mail Babson to complain about the posts. The college even got in touch with the Wellesley Police to notify them of a potential media firestorm, according to law enforcement officials.
Phansey apologized and said it was a “bad attempt at humor,” but within 48 hours he was suspended and then lost his job.
“I’m still reeling from what has happened,” Phansey, a divorced father of two young children, said in a recent interview. “It’s strange that it became a national story.”
In the middle of the controversy, Phansey said he had to take his children out of school, stay away from his home over concerns for his safety, and shut down all his social media accounts.
But now two weeks later, Phansey wonders if he was an easy target.
Colleges and universities are viewed as liberal bastions and coming under increasing attack from conservative foes, Phansey said. And he asks whether his own foreign-sounding name — he is of Indian descent but was born in the United States and grew up in the Boston area — fueled the backlash over his comments.
“It fit into a narrative of the Internet,” Phansey said. “This is a liberal professor with a foreign sounding name that is saying these things.”
Still, organizations have come to Phansey’s defense.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a free speech watchdog group, has urged Babson to reinstate Phansey and argued that the college overreacted to the post.
“There is a cottage industry of people who are looking for professors and faculty members who say outrageous things . . . and universities don’t know how to deal with them,” said Adam Steinbaugh, the director of the individual rights defense program at FIRE. “We’re seeing a distressing number of cases where faculty are facing pressure from their institution for academic remarks or [those made] outside of classroom.”
Even Turtleboy Sports, which first drew attention to Phansey post, was taken aback by the firing and argued in a column that Babson made the wrong call, warning of the need to rein in the “cancel culture.”
Jonathan Friedman, the director of the Campus Free Speech Project at PEN America, said Babson should take a second look at Phansey’s firing.
“They can make this right,” Friedman said.