Letter to UGA President Morehead re: Race, Labor and Academic Freedom

UCWGA fights for the freedom of speech for all university workers. We expect the University of Georgia to do the same. Read our letter to President Morehead signed by 126 faculty, staff, students, and community members.

Dear President Morehead, On January 17, 2019, the conservative blog Campus Reform published a post condemning a comment made by Irami Osei-Frimpong, a PhD student in the University of Georgia philosophy department, on the “Overheard at UGA” Facebook page. The comment (which has since been deleted) was made in the context of a discussion of the history of racism and white supremacy in the United States since the Civil Rights movement. It read: “Some White people may have to die for Black communities to be made whole in this struggle to advance to freedom. To pretend that’s not the case is ahistorical and dangerously naive.” We write to address the University’s response, which has come perilously close to caving to an outside organization’s attempt to squelch academic freedom at UGA. An initial statement from the UGA Equal Opportunity Office acknowledged Mr. Osei-Frimpong’s First Amendment right to express his private views on his personal social media accounts. However, on the evening of Jan. 20, 2019, UGA changed course with the following Twitter post: “The University has been vigorously exploring all available legal options. Racism has no place on our campus, and we condemn the advocacy or suggestion of violence in any form. We are seeking guidance from the Office of the Attorney General as to what actions we can legally consider in accordance with the First Amendment.” That is, the University’s stance switched from neutrality to oblique threats of legal action against Mr. Osei-Frimpong. Every day, faculty, staff, and graduate students make innumerable statements on and off campus that might offend particular people or that might even cause an uproar taken out of context. It is UGA’s responsibility to have a rational procedure for responding to these sorts of complaints. Unless we can rely on our administration to support us, academic freedom does not exist. Without academic freedom there is no education. And since it is our job as university workers to educate and to provide educational support, without academic freedom there is no safe place to work. With its history steeped in slavery and segregation and its recent attempts to bury that past, its role in the destruction of established black communities through urban renewal, and its perpetuation of generational poverty by paying a large portion of its staff—especially its African American staff—extremely low wages, the University of Georgia bears the moral and legal responsibility to ensure all its workers’ most basic rights —free speech, fair treatment, and fair wages.

Protecting Mr. Osei-Frimpong’s right to speak freely and to challenge the long history of white supremacy in this country, this community, and especially this University, should not be controversial. That is the University’s job.