GREENVILLE, S.C. (WSPA) – A civil liberties nonprofit has called for Furman University to end its investigation into a university professor and return him to the classroom.
Furman University announced Monday it was investigating claims that Christopher Healy, a university professor, attended the 2017 ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville. The university stated that the professor will not teach or be on campus “as we process these difficult circumstances.”
The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) sent a letter to Furman’s president on Wednesday detailing their concerns, saying the university had “violated its free expression promises” by banning Christopher Healy from campus.
“In investigating and placing Healy on leave, Furman has thus violated its free expression promises – policies to which the university is contractually bound,” FIRE said in their statement. “Furman must accordingly restore Healy to teaching immediately and reaffirm to faculty that the university will honor its commitments to free expression.”
“Basically the University is not able to punish Professor Healy because number one it promises free speech to its faculty,” said Sabrina Conza, Program Officer, FIRE’s Campus Rights Advocacy Department. “Number two, South Carolina Law says that you can not fire a faculty member,” she said. “Not just a faculty member any employee. No employer can fire an employee based on their protected first amendment activities or the rights guaranteed to them by the constitution. And so in that, the University can not fire him. They can’t investigate him,” Conza said.
7News spoke with John Reckenbeil, an Upstate attorney about FIRE’s statement.
“Basically, it is illegal for an employer to fire an employee for their political opinions. But, they don’t define in the law what political opinions are. However, in 2003, there was a U.S. District court case in South Carolina, which addressed an issue where an employee put the confederate flag on their toolbox at their job. The employer terminated them. The court ruled that, that was not a political opinion being expressed and that termination was valid. So, that’s really the only case that we have that is in our controlling jurisdiction that gives some sort of interpretation to that law,” Reckenbeil said.
“You have to look at court cases, and if they would do the research and find what I found in the sense that in 2003, there was a case that said an employer can fire an individual who had confederate flag sticker on their toolbox, because that wasn’t a political expression, then they would recognize and understand Furman University has the absolute right to do this,” Reckenbeil said.
Conza with FIRE said the organization wants Healy reinstated.
“We believe that professor Healy should be reinstated and the investigation should be ended without any sanction,” Conza said.
Healy released the following statement Thursday:
“This event dealt with the question of keeping intact a statue of Robert E. Lee. All I did in attending the event was exercise my rights as an American citizen, and this episode has taught me that there are real enemies of free speech. In the USA, we are not guilty by association, but I feel like a butterfly being accused of starting a hurricane.”
“In attending this rally, that was Professor Healy expressing his view for a view that a lot of people disagree with you know, but that’s not something we comment on is, on what our opinions are on that view, but what we do comment on is that a university can not punish a professor for his first amendment activity,” Conza said.
Reckenbeil said this situation could get sticky.
“What the other issue that they’re going to run into, is Furman University is a private university. So, if you’re trying to use the first amendment underneath the United States constitution, you have to have what we call a state actor. So, a state entity has to basically prohibit your constitutional rights when it comes to most of the time, when you’re suing for your first amendment protections. Furman University is not a state entity. So, they are relying upon this one state law that has been interpreted to basically say that an individual with a confederate flag on a toolbox can be terminated. That’s not going to be a very winning argument in a court case,” Reckenbeil said.
Click here to read the full letter from FIRE to Furman University’s president.