Concern must be raised about the University’s recent comments on the website Campus Reform regarding Professor Erik Loomis and his tweet about racism in AI software, particularly Assistant Director of Media Relations Dave Lavallee’s comment, according to the publication, that Loomis “does not have the right to make such unsubstantiated claims in the context of his university position or role.” The University’s claim contradicts established SCOTUS case law, including the precedents set in Pickering v. Board of Education (1968) and Garcetti v. Ceballos (2006), which maintain that the free speech of public faculty is fully protected under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. As is widely known, the University of Rhode Island is a public university, legally bound by these rulings and the principles of the Constitution. Professor Loomis is therefore allowed to express such views as a URI professor unhindered.
We are very worried about the University so vocally condemning one of its professors for making comments within the parameters of academic discourse. Regardless of his past controversial comments, Loomis’s comment was an expression of his rights as a US citizen and as a state-employed academic. While we appreciate the University’s vocal commitment to First Amendment principles, publicly condemning one of its faculty for responding to a very real debate about racism in AI and facial recognition technologies, and casting doubt on his right to do so, may have a chilling effect on faculty expressing similar views. Thus, we think it is inappropriate for the University to intervene in this matter at the behest of an outside political organization, and to do so in a way that threatens freedom of speech at URI.
We have sent Assistant Director Lavallee a statement outlining the above long before the submission of this letter, and have not received a response.
Free speech is the cornerstone of academic debate and education, and the University implicitly threatening an academic for stating something the University does not agree with is troubling and unbecoming. Regardless of whether it was intentionally so or not, it should be retracted.