NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J., Nov. 15, 2018 — Rutgers University has officially reversed its decision to find a tenured history professor guilty of violating university policy because he wrote two Facebook posts critical of white gentrification in Harlem. The reversal is a vindication for the right of professors to speak as private citizens on issues of public concern.
The university informed professor James Livingston of the reversal on Wednesday, after Rutgers President Robert L. Barchi ordered the reevaluation of the initial ruling. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education represented Livingston in the matter.
“FIRE is pleased that Rutgers did the right thing and reversed the charge of racial discrimination against Professor Livingston,” said Marieke Tuthill Beck-Coon, FIRE’s director of litigation. “Any other result would have undermined the free speech and academic freedom rights of all Rutgers faculty members.”
On May 31, while at a restaurant in his Harlem neighborhood, Livingston posted on his personal Facebook account, “OK, officially, I now hate white people. I am a white people, for God’s sake, but can we keep them–us–us out of my neighborhood?” He wrote that the restaurant was “overrun with little Caucasian assholes,” and said, “I hereby resign from my race.”
In a July report, Rutgers determined that Livingston’s posts violated the university’s Policy Prohibiting Discrimination and Harassment — despite the report’s failure to identify any complaints by Rutgers students or faculty members accusing Livingston of discriminatory conduct. The report wrongly concluded the posts were not protected by the First Amendment and amounted to racial discrimination in violation of university policy.
Punishment for violating the policy allowed for disciplinary action “up to and including discharge.”
Rutgers denied Livingston’s appeal Aug. 10 — two days after it was submitted. FIRE then wrote to Barchi to demand that the ruling be reversed, noting that the finding violated Livingston’s First Amendment rights and “poses a serious threat to the academic freedom of Rutgers faculty and impermissibly hinders their ability to fulfill their essential role in our democracy.”
After FIRE’s letter, Barchi ordered the reevaluation of the earlier ruling, noting that while he found Livingston’s speech offensive, “few values are as important to the University as the protection of our First Amendment rights—even when the speech we are protecting is insensitive and reckless.”
Wednesday’s reversal concluded that Livingston’s comments did not violate the university’s discrimination and harassment policy.
“I’m relieved that my right to free speech and my academic freedom have been validated by this retraction, thanks to FIRE, the AAUP, and colleagues, who made this strange episode an issue to be debated and decided in public,” Livingston said in a statement. “But if I may use the occasion to preach . . . As a tenured professor, I have resources and protections that are unavailable to most employees. That is not just unfortunate, it is simply wrong, and needs redressing. Would that FIRE could represent all of us on the job.”
FIRE would like to sincerely thank Patricia Hamill and Lorie Dakessian of Conrad O’Brien, who agreed to co-counsel with us in representing Livingston.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending and sustaining the individual rights of students and faculty members at America’s colleges and universities. These rights include freedom of speech, freedom of association, due process, legal equality, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience — the essential qualities of liberty.