Victoria (last name withheld) is a senior at UNC-Wilmington where I have taught for 26 years. She is also an adult who exercised her First Amendment right to criticize me by name in a large online public forum. Unfortunately, some people who read her social media post incorrectly concluded that she had engaged in defamatory speech, which is not protected by the First Amendment. I disagree and write today in defense of her free speech rights. In order to establish appropriate context, I have reprinted her post below:
"Hey guys, I’m working with an anonymous professor on campus to create a resource where students can anonymously put in negative experiences with professors. Specifically this is in aims to address the racist and sexist remarks commented by professor Mike Adams. If you have any stories from the last two years at the university and would like to help me with this feel free to (direct message) me. Also, If there are any ideas of how to set up this resource, let me know as well. A university that preaches diversity and it’s [sic] need for growth should not allow students to feel alienated or uncomfortable."
This post simply expresses an opinion about my speech. In my opinion, it wrongly characterizes my speech – and does so without directly attacking my character. If Victoria had gone further and called me a racist and a sexist, she would still be wrong. Even then, she would not be in danger of being sued for defamation because I am a public figure, which means I get attacked often and have less legal recourse when it happens.
But there is an upside to being a public figure. As a public figure, I have a lot of allies. This means that when I am attacked there are many people who are ready to come to my defense. That is a good thing because the best remedy for bad speech is generally not to be found in lawsuits. The best remedy for bad speech is to be found in better speech.
In the case of Victoria’s bad speech, better speech did follow. Within minutes, a student named Brandon responded with the following:
"Lol this has to be a joke. I’ve felt alienated since freshman year for being a Republican."
Part of the beauty of this remark is that Brandon is Hispanic. He also added a comment specifically denying that I am either sexist or racist. But the fun was just beginning. A student named Rebekah added the following:
"They are just upset that someone is speaking out against them."
Next, a student named Sean added this response:
"What would UNCW be without Dr. Adams."
Then, another Hispanic student named Sabrina came to my defense with this comment:
"He’s my favorite professor."
Indeed, within a span of a few minutes, two women, two Hispanics, and a Democrat had come to my defense. So much for the politicized accusations of racism and sexism!
So what did Victoria do in light of the epic failure of her post? She amended it to include the following:
"I appreciate the reactions I have had and have decided my direct mention of a faculty member was inappropriate."
This is an example of the way it is supposed to be. In a free and open marketplace of ideas, there will be many errors. People will say unfair things. But by keeping the marketplace open, such errors can be corrected. Of course, corrections do require some degree of character on behalf of those who make mistakes. And Victoria has shown character, here. Two traits of hers are praiseworthy.
Courage. I actually like the fact that Victoria called me out by name. Remember that I was a leftist when I was younger. If I were aware back then of any professors holding the views I hold now, I would have been very tempted to light them up on social media (had it then existed). I’m just not sure I would have had the courage to do it back then.
Humility. This is a character trait I admire in people (as I will explain in my forthcoming book, Ten Steps To Humility: And How I Made It In Seven). I always seem to want to dig in my heels when I say the wrong thing. Thus, I rarely acknowledge my appreciation of critics and even more rarely acknowledge the fact that I actually said something inappropriate. This was a real display of maturity by Victoria.
But let us take a moment to contrast Victoria’s behavior with the cowardice of her secret professor and mentor. That professor is hiding in the shadows and trying to target me for my political views. That has been tried before here at UNC-Wilmington. It ended up with a jury verdict and an order from a judge to pay me over three-quarters of a million dollars in legal fees and back pay. I used the money to buy guns and several expensive guitars, which I named after the defendants. They are prominently displayed in my living room and make great conversation pieces.
Of course, it should go without saying that my view about the desirability of lawsuits changes when the person criticizing me is an employee of the government trying to use the power of government against me. And there is no doubt that this anonymous professor is trying to solicit these secret complaints in order to file formal ones. This will only result in her name being exposed when it winds up on a lawsuit that will ultimately cause another guitar to be named after her.
In a nutshell, I would strongly caution this anonymous professor to avoid getting her panties in a wad and doing something she will regret. Otherwise, Victoria’s Secret will soon be forced to start producing legal briefs.