Having a dissenting view within the prevailing orthodoxies of many universities today can lead to “a death by a thousand cuts,” according to a lawyer who specializes in constitutional law.
Samantha Harris, with Allen Harris Law in Connecticut, represents Stephen Porter, a professor at North Carolina State University (NCSU). Porter filed a lawsuit on Sept. 14, alleging that faculty members in his department were discriminating against him, violating both his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights by retaliating against his free speech.
“In some ways, it’s nothing new,” Harris told The Epoch Times, “but what I’ve observed in recent years is these institutions have gotten smarter in knowing that they can’t just fire someone.”
Over the last 20 years, Harris said she’s seen multiple strategies on how universities censor unpopular speech of faculty and students.
Death by a Thousand Cuts
Rather than termination or direct punishment, Harris said the latest is the adoption of an incremental strategy, in which the institution subjects the dissenter to investigations, removal from committees, and accusations of professionalism violations.
This subtle death by a thousand cuts can complicate the livelihood for someone who expresses an unpopular belief, Harris said, and blur the line between First Amendment rights and the institution’s overreach.
“It can make it difficult for people to advance their careers, as well as to get justice for what’s happening to them,” Harris said.
On the predominant social justice ideologies being debated—such as what Porter said he was contesting at NCSU—Harris said she avoids using phrases like Critical Race Theory (CRT), the Marxist philosophy that suggests society is a class struggle between oppressors and the oppressed, labeling white people as the oppressors and all other races as the oppressed.
“That’s become shorthand for what I would call this very race-focused view looking at how we should as a country deal with issues of race and identity,” Harris said. “As a result, people who ascribe to what I would call a more traditional civil rights view of treating people equally and viewing each person as an individual has fallen out of favor on many campuses and is often the accused of being racist itself.”
Color blindness, which used to be the standard for not being racist, is now considered in many circles to be racist, she said.
“Critical Race Theory is a school of thought that evolved out of the universities, and that has informed a lot of thinking, but what I really call it is this very race-focused view of the world, the way humans interact with one another, and the way policies should be made,” Harris said.
Most of her clients are people who have landed on the “wrong side” of these views by expressing opinions not in line with “this very race-focused world view.”
“The same goes for gender identity,” Harris said. “Interestingly, I’ve had clients who are feminist who do not ascribe to the current views on gender identity and have found themselves targeted for that.”
Most frequently, Harris said what she’s observed is the suppression of traditional, conservative views at liberal universities.
Before setting up her own firm, Harris worked for 15 years at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a nonprofit academic and individual rights advocacy center set up to be a resource for students and faculty members who have had their freedom of speech infringed upon.
“FIRE is a faculty rights organization that does some targeted First Amendment litigation at public universities, but they also advocate on behalf of the students and faculty at private universities who are facing censorship,” Harris said.
On her transition from “big-picture advocacy” at FIRE to “getting into the trenches” to represent individual clients at her law firm, Harris said her focus is primarily on freedom of speech and due process, ensuring those who are accused of misconduct can go through an impartial investigation before facing disciplinary action.
Freedom of Conscience
The firm also defends freedom of conscience, or the freedom to hold one’s own thoughts and beliefs free from governmental interference.
“The seminal freedom of conscience case was when a court held that Jehovah’s Witness students could not be forced to salute the flag in class,” Harris said. “That violated their freedom of conscience, the right to be free from compelled speech and compelled beliefs.”
In the 1943 case of West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, the board adopted a directive requiring all public-school students to salute the flag and recite the Pledge of Allegiance or be expelled.
A group of Jehovah’s Witness students challenged the directive on the pretense that saluting the flag conflicted with their religious beliefs prohibiting idol worship, therefore violating their freedom of religion and speech, and the Supreme Court concurred.
Similarly, the freedom of conscience comes into play with what Harris said are “intrusive training” methodologies in which world views and theories aren’t shared, but required.
In North Carolina Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson’s Fairness and Accountability in the Classroom for Teachers and Students task force report, teachers and parents anonymously provided testimony and examples of curriculums of what they were seeing in North Carolina classrooms.
One teacher alleged in the report that white staff members were told that they were unaware of their racism and required to attend “professional development” sessions related to “microaggression” and “equity” as it relates to race and gender.
What brought Harris’ client, Stephen Porter, to the attention of his faculty members at NCSU was his blog posts challenging the social justice ideologies of his department.
“Faculty at public universities have the right to speak as private citizens on matters of public concern,” Harris said. “When a faculty member or public employee has a private blog in which they express their opinions about important societal issues, they have the right to free speech to do that.”
Porter told The Epoch Times that for three years his own department has been attempting to isolate and drain him of resources in retaliation for opposing “the broader push for social justice ideologies within our college.”
After writing a blog criticizing the Association for the Study of Higher Education research conference, which he said had become a “woke joke,” the president of the conference, during her keynote speech, had a picture of Porter behind her at the conference, where he said, “she spent 10 minutes castigating me and my blog posts, accusing me of white fragility.”
In addition, Porter said the department had engaged in untested research methodologies to inquire about diversity being taught in the classroom.
“My background is in survey methodology, so, not realizing this would start a furor, I began asking simple questions,” Porter said.
In the lawsuit, Porter alleged that he had been “systematically excluded” from meetings and activities related to higher education programs and the advising of students, which Porter said prevented him from getting new advisees.
As Porter experienced his own “death by a thousand cuts,” he said he slipped into depression, concerned that he was going to lose his job and the means to provide for his family.
After meeting with Harris and filing the lawsuit, he said he’s in “a much better place, particularly since we filed.”
“I feel like I’m fighting back for my rights, and quite honestly, I’m doing this to restore my job to what it was a few years ago,” he said.
Another reason he filed the lawsuit was to give others the courage to take a stand.
“This is happening in universities around the country,” Porter said. “People are afraid to speak up, and I’d like to provide an example that says, ‘It’s possible to stand up for yourself and fight for your rights. It’s OK to be a conservative in academia, although my colleagues would obviously disagree.’”
When reached for comment, a spokesperson for NCSU said the university does not comment on pending litigation.