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Free speech on campus must be defended

One of the state’s largest companies, upset by administrators’ response to racially charged incidents involving University of Oklahoma faculty, has pulled its advertisements on campus and vows to continue unless OU clamps down on free speech. The university's response will be one to watch.

In a letter to OU’s interim president, Paycom CEO Chad Richison criticized the school’s “inaction to implement appropriate employment practices.”

Last month, a 20-year journalism professor with an excellent record used the N-word in class, likening it to the derogatory phrase “OK, boomer.” It was a poor and indefensible decision; he was removed from the class for the rest of the semester, agreed to meet with OU’s diversity office and is taking OU’s program in culturally competent communication.

Two weeks later, a history professor, after issuing a “trigger” warning to her class, read aloud from a 1920s-era document from Congress in which the N-word was used several times. She apologized after students complained.

The incidents resulted in a group named the Black Emergency Response Team occupying the president’s office for a few days and issuing demands including creation of a semester-long diversity course for new students, mandatory equity training for all faculty and a multicultural center on campus.

The group also wanted the resignation of Provost Kyle Harper, in part over his handling of racial incidents involving students. Interim OU President Joe Harroz refused.

Harroz has said that faculty, staff and administrators will be required to take a new diversity, equity and inclusion training regimen. He also has roundly criticized both professors’ comments while noting that they were protected speech under the First Amendment.

But Richison says OU’s diversity training efforts “failed because they assured free speech protection.”

“Additionally,” his letter says, “your assertion that derogatory and offensive statements are protected by free speech inaccurately signals to alumni, employers, faculty and others that a professor, administrator or regent has the authority to say racially motivated and offensive words on campus because you have advised and assured them they are protected.”

The CEO said Paycom’s decision will stay in place until Harroz and the OU Board of Regents take “meaningful action to transform the current destructive culture” that Richison contends they have created.

He says regents who “choose to hide behind free speech over deterring discrimination, and who cannot accept their past actions have not worked either” should quit or be outvoted by those who remain.

We don’t doubt that, like Harroz and anyone who loves the university, each regent is mortified, angry and disappointed about the troubling events at OU. We all expect better. However, progress on this front — by faculty and students alike — must come through continued education and communication, and absolutely not through restrictions on this country’s bedrock freedom.

The Oklahoman Editorial Board

The Oklahoman Editorial Board consists of Kelly Dyer Fry, Publisher, Editor and Vice President of News; Owen Canfield, Opinion Editor; and Ray Carter, Chief Editorial Writer.. To submit a letter to the editor, go to this page or email... Read more ›