I had heard of Charles Negy, Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Central Florida (UCF). What I heard seemed like a particularly egregious example of cancel culture that is purging academia and imposing uniformity of opinion, particularly with regard to the Black Lives Matter movement. Having looked into it more, it’s worse than I realized.

Negy’s alleged crime that sparked the controversy was two tweets questioning the orthodoxy of systemic racism and white privilege.

One tweet, which no longer is available,said:

“If Afr. Americans as a group, had the same behavioral profile as Asian Americans (on average, performing the best academically, having the highest income, committing the lowest crime, etc.), would we still be proclaiming ‘systematic racism’ exists?”

A second tweet, also no longer available, said:

“Black privilege is real: Besides affirm. action, special scholarships and other set asides, being shielded from legitimate criticism is a privilege. But as a group, they’re missing out on much needed feedback.”

Rather than debate the merits or lack of merits in his opinions, a particularly aggressive attempt to get Negy fired ensued.

There was a Change.org petition with over 30,000 signatures, a Twitter hashtag was launched (#UCFFireHim) that trended, the student Senate passed a resolution, and there were protests on campus in which the President participated:

UCF tweeted that Negy’s statements were “counter to UCF’s values” (hmmm, the claim that statements are counter to the school’s “values” seems vaguely familiar, must be in the universal higher ed senior administrator’s handbook):

Students protested in front of his home, a clear act of intimidation we are seeing more and more frequently:

A protest Saturday in front of his home drew carfuls of students and prompted police protection, according to the professor.

“The cars drove by with a megaphone shouting ‘Black Lives Matter’ and ‘Negy must resign’ while blowing their horns nonstop,” Negy told The College Fix in an email Monday. “That went [on] for 30 minutes. That’s not ‘protesting.’ That’s bullying, harassment, and intimidation. That occurred after they had spent three hours on foot at the entrance of my neighborhood.”

He said several sheriffs were called out to protect his house.

As the Tampa Bay Times reported, some of the UCF football players demanded his firing:

Some of the UCF football team’s biggest stars are demanding the university fire Charles Negy, a psychology associate professor who has sparked protests with his controversial social media posts.

Senior running back Greg McCrae was the first to express his outrage on Twitter and was joined by other players, including redshirt senior quarterback McKenzie Milton….

As bad as all the above was, there is an additional factor that takes this to another level. Negy alleged that UCF was soliciting complaints against him. From the Tampa Bay Times article:

Negy has worked at UCF since 1998 and earned tenure in 2001, a status that can make it harder to fire him.

During an on-campus protest on June 13, UCF president Alexander Cartwright noted Negy had First Amendment rights to share his viewpoints.

“Your opinions matter, and we will to look into this,” Cartwright told protesters. “But we have to go through a process. We will not make a decision until we have enough information.”

Negy said he has been the subject of a witch hunt.

“They’re actively soliciting complaints against me because I’m a political inconvenience for them at the moment,” Negy said.

Based on President Cartwright’s tweet, is certainly would seem that UCF is trying to find a reason to fire Negy. That suspicion is supported by NY Times reporting about statements by the President Cartwright and UCF Interim Provost:

Michael Johnson, the interim provost, said that tenured faculty members at the public university can generally be removed only for incompetence or misconduct, which would have to be proved through a careful investigation.

“We can act when people’s conduct is in the course of their job, when it’s in their classroom, when it’s with their colleagues,” he said during an online meeting with students angered by Dr. Negy’s comments. “People’s behavior is something we can act upon. But we can’t act on people’s speech outside the university.”

Mr. Johnson urged students to report racist, intolerant or demeaning behavior in any professor’s classroom.

He also said that even though the Constitution and the principle of academic freedom protect the right of faculty members to hold and teach unpopular views, “that does not make what Dr. Negy said on Twitter any less vile.”

“The classroom must be a level playing field for all students,” he said.

Dr. Cartwright called Dr. Negy’s remarks “racist and abhorrent” and said that the university would take action if it found evidence of discrimination in the classroom or on campus.

The active solicitation of complaints is something familiar to any employment lawyer.

A big piece of my practice before joining Cornell Law School was representing terminated or departed employees (“stockbrokers”) against stock brokerage firms. There was a familiar dance: After termination (whether voluntarily or not), the firm would immediately contact the departing employee’s clients, and ask about whether the clients had any problems with the departed employee. People who never thought to complain, or who didn’t understand the ulterior motive behind the question, might say things they considered innocent gripes. But those innocent gripes in many instances, became reportable customer complaints that were reported to regulators by the firm. The purpose of soliciting reportable complaints was to make it more difficult for the employee to find a new job, or if the employee found a job, to create regulatory red flags that slowed the employee’s license transfer. That would buy the firm timr to convince the clients not to follow the employee to a new firm, allowing the firm to retain the business.

So this tactic of soliciting complaints as an employment tactic is familiar to me. The new complaints, that no student ever reported before Negy became controversial, could form the basis for UCF firing Negy.

This reporting was confirmed in a column by Negy’s lawyer, Samantha Harris, in Quillette, The Floridian Inquisition:

I’m an attorney representing a professor at the University of Central Florida who is being subjected by the university to what can only be called an inquisition after expressing opinions on Twitter that led to widespread calls for his firing. UCF is a public institution—an instrument of the state—and is now bringing its full power to bear against a man who dared to question the prevailing orthodoxy that has quickly descended over so many of this country’s institutions. I cannot bear witness to what the university is doing to this man without speaking out against it. If we do not challenge this egregious abuse of power, things will only get worse….

UCF president Alexander Cartwright understood, but was clearly disappointed, that the university could not fire Negy for his constitutionally protected tweets, telling the Orlando Sentinel: “The Constitution restricts our ability to fire him or any other University employee for expressing personal opinions about matters of public concern. This is the law.”

So Cartwright chose a different strategy: He publicly announced a witch hunt into Negy’s classroom speech. A June 4th message posted to UCF’s website from the president, provost, and chief diversity officer addressed the content of Negy’s tweets directly and then stated: “If any student, current or former, believes they may have experienced abusive or discriminatory behavior by any faculty or staff member, we want to know about it. UCF takes every report seriously. Concerns can be reported to UCF’s IntegrityLine, which also takes anonymous complaints.” (Emphasis added).

UCF’s clarion call worked. Since June 4th, a litany (we don’t know the exact number, because they won’t say) of complaints has been lodged against Negy for his classroom pedagogy, for speech that allegedly occurred over a 15-year period from 2005 to 2020. The university charged Negy with discriminatory harassment on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, religion, sex, gender identity/expression, and disability—it is worth noting here that Negy himself is both an ethnic and sexual minority—while providing him with only a handful of “examples” of his alleged wrongdoing. Negy begged for more information prior to his investigative interview so that he might prepare to defend himself, but UCF refused.

Instead, last Friday the university subjected Negy to an “investigative interview” that was one of the most Kafkaesque things I have seen in my 15 years advising students and faculty about campus disciplinary matters. For four straight hours, UCF’s investigator grilled Negy about accusations stemming directly from his classroom pedagogy, having made no effort to weed out the countless accusations that were obviously just critiques of his choice of teaching material. UCF also made no effort to consolidate allegations, repeatedly asking Negy variations of the same question, ad infinitum. And again, virtually all of these questions related directly to Negy’s pedagogy, which deals with unavoidably controversial subjects. When Negy, physically and emotionally exhausted after four hours of interrogation, asked if the interview was almost over, we learned that the investigator had not even gotten halfway through her list of accusations. Since he could take no more, another five-hour inquisition was scheduled for the following week.

This investigation was obviously undertaken in retaliation for Negy’s protected tweets….

Harris provided me with the following few examples, out of many more, of the topics about which Negy was interrogated:

  • Class discussions of research on gender identity citing research that an increased number of young adults are reporting that they are gender fluid, and suggesting that more research is needed to establish whether this simply reflects greater openness or suggests that it is currently en vogue to identify as gender fluid.
  • Expressing his view, during course discussions of race, that America does not suffer from systemic racism.
  • Expressing his view (during course discussions of sexual orientation), as a gay man born in 1960, that some of today’s young gay people may exaggerate their victimhood, not recognizing how much the culture has changed in favor of sexual minorities since he came of age.
  • Being frank with students, during lectures relating to religion, about his own atheism.
  • Expressing his view, when he covers Islam in Cross-Cultural Psychology, that Muslims who state that Islam is a “religion of peace” are choosing to overlook a number of violent verses in the Koran.

Harris also provided this statement to me:

“From the beginning, this investigation has been a pretextual effort to get around the inconvenient fact that the university can’t simply fire Charles Negy because he expresses unpopular views. So instead, the university has called for an inquisition and subjected him to 9 hours of interrogation about 15 years of classroom teaching – something that no reasonable person should have to endure simply for speaking their mind, and something that will chill the speech of anyone else at UCF who might wish to express views out of step with official university orthodoxy. This egregious violation of his free speech and due process rights cannot stand.”

If true, the picture emerging of UCF behavior is a paradigm of bad faith retaliation for Negy expressing his protected viewpoints. It doesn’t matter that his views are unpopular, they are protected and there can be no retaliation for those statements.

The administrative process and the soliticitation of complaints, is the punishment in itself, though termination or other adverse employment action would increase the damage. It has a chilling effect on people who do not have protection.

Prof. Jonathan Turley wrote about Negy’s situation and the chilling effect:

Negy has faced protests at his home and on campus, according to news reports.  He has explored the concept of “white shaming” as an academic, including a book entitled “White Shaming: Bullying Based on Prejudice, Virtue-signaling, and Ignorance.”

Negy’s work is highly controversial and his tweets have inflamed critics. In a now deleted tweet, he wrote “Black privilege is real: Besides affirm. action, special scholarships and other set asides, being shielded from legitimate criticism is a privilege. But as a group, they’re missing out on much needed feedback.”

He has also written, again on Twitter, “If Afr. Americans as a group, had the same behavioral profile as Asian Americans (on average, performing the best academically, having the highest income, committing the lowest crime, etc.), would we still be proclaiming ‘systematic racism’ exists?”

Again, the question is not the merits or tenor of such writings but the right of academics to express such viewpoints. There is little comparable protests when professors write inflammatory comments about white culture or white privilege.  Indeed, I have supported academics who have been criticized for such statements. However, the silence of other academics in these countervailing cases is deafening.

Indeed, many faculty like those at Cornell are pledging to combat what they call “racism masquerading as informed commentary.”  When done through their own right to free speech, this is perfectly appropriate.  However, there are now a variety of cases where faculty are supporting efforts to force colleagues to retire or to fire colleagues for expressing opposing views.

I reached out to President Cartwright and UCF media relations people specifically asking them to provde me with their side of the story and a response to the allegations in the Quillette article. Here is the only response I received, from UCF Assistant Vice President for Communications Chad Binette, as follows:

We appreciate your interest in this topic. The university takes the matter seriously and is conducting a fair-minded, detailed and robust review. We will be happy to share the findings with you when that process is complete.

This is a fairly unusual response. Usually when I write to universities or institutions about an employment matter, there either is no comment or a comment that the institution does not comment on personnel matters. I’ve never received a promise to share internal investigative findings. So whatever the result is, and I think we can predict it, it seems likely there will be another public shaming of Negy by the administration, at a minimum.

I have seen this movie before in the employment cases I handed against big institutions. As brutal as the interrogation of Negy is, it is nothing compared to how brutal the discovery of internal and external communications between and among UCF administrators, faculty, students, alumni, and the community will be if this case ends up in court. Whatever the case seems to UCF as it gears up, the case may look very different when it gets to trial.

I think many more people will be hearing about Charles Negy if he has the staying power. His attorney is affiliated with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), but don’t underestimate the stress of one person standing alone against the mob and a multi-billion dollar institution.

[Featured Image: Charles Negy Twitter Profile Pic]

 

 
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