Benjamin Franklin famously said after the Constitutional Convention to a group of citizens patiently awaiting the verdict of the deliberation that the founders had created “a republic, if you can keep it.” Those words echo in the ears of Americans today, struck with biting polarization and ferocious partisanship.
As we contemplate the state of our union and prepare for upcoming national, state and local elections, I thought it appropriate to reexamine some of our most poignant founding principles. First up is freedom of speech. Given the recent events regarding Professor James Thomas, it seems only appropriate that we dissect the event to determine what’s at stake.
The founders knew how important freedom of speech was for the maintenance of a free society. So, they enshrined it in the First Amendment of the Constitution. This means that citizens have the right to speak, to engage in political speech and to protest peaceably — or not.
Recently, Thomas, who is a UM sociology professor, has come under fire by state auditor Shad White who recommended the university withhold his pay for participating in the scholar strike earlier this month. Opinion editor Katie Dames argues in her piece on the issue that White is targeting Thomas for his progressive views in a convenient political game. However, the facts seem to be on the side of White, who is known to pursue Republicans and Democrats alike. He cites a law in Mississippi that makes it illegal for educators to strike as basis for his recommendation. If Thomas engaged in illegal activity, he should not be paid for the days he missed work.
However, let us indulge the freedom of speech claim, looking specifically at Thomas’s statements on social media. Two specific tweets have garnered mass attention for Thomas. In 2018, Thomas tweeted that Republicans “don’t deserve your civility,” urging his followers to disrupt the meals of these civil servants and redistribute their food. In early 2019, Thomas posted a cynical tweet about conservative professors that explained their “disappearance” from university discourse.
I fully support Thomas’s right to free speech. He should be allowed to express his opinions as he sees fit, but the way in which he expresses himself makes me pause. Dames notes Thomas’s academic freedom as acknowledged in the UM Creed.
But what about fairness and civility? Respect for the dignity of each person? Those lines of the Creed are an inconvenient reality, brushed aside to promote one side of the debate. Maybe we should hold him to the standards of our community as defined by the Creed, just as we do students and other faculty. If you want to cite academic freedom, don’t forget fairness, civility and respect for the dignity of each person.
The founders of this great country surely knew that partisanship would plague this country and guaranteed that one side did not have the ability to silence dissenters. Let Thomas speak his mind. I can support his right to say what he wants whether or not I agree with him. But when he clearly breaks the laws of the state, do not be surprised that he will be held accountable for his actions.
Lauren Moses is a senior from Coppell, Texas, studying economics and political science.