Professor appeals to High Court to protect academic speech

By Rebecca S. Weiner

Education Daily, August 14, 1998

A former Florida college professor accused of making racial remarks is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to determine to what extent academic speech is protected by the First Amendment

Gerald Gee, who was an assistant journalism professor at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, is challenging a two-week suspension without pay imposed by the school after students complained he made racist comments. When Gee’s students at the historically black institution said there were not enough opportunities at the university for public-relations majors, the white professor told the students to make their own opportunities and avoid “what some would call a ‘nigger mentality’—the sort of thinking that can keep us all on the back of the bus forever.”

Four students filed formal complaints with the university and Gee was ultimately told he would be suspended for two weeks without pay for “racial harassment.” He also was told his teaching contract would not be renewed after the following semester. The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida and the U.S. Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals both ruled against Gee. The U.S. District court said, in Gee v. Humphries (95-40031), that the professor’s speech was not protected by the First Amendment because it was not a “matter of public concern,” or public speech. “It is plain that this was a racially derogatory remark directed at students in Mr. Gee’s class,” the court wrote. But Gee’s attorneys say, “Pedagogic speech— speech designed to communicate a message from professor to student transcends the teacher’s personal concern almost by definition,” in a brief, Gee v. Humphries (98-44), filed with the U.S. Supreme Court.

Gee’s attorneys argue that the federal courts are divided over whether teachers’ speech is protected by the First Amendment. They cite a 1996 decision by the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, in Cohen v. San Bernadino Valley College (92 F.3d 968), that said the college’s sexual harassment policy did not apply to professors’ lectures (ED, Aug. 23, 1996). Gee is represented by the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Individual Rights, the same group that has funded anti-affirmative action cases in Texas, Washington and Michigan.