The trouble with being a free speech absolutist (as I am) is that you often find yourself having to defend awful people who say awful things. Even if you truly believe (as I do) that the First Amendment’s guarantee of free expression applies to all manner thereof—not just the pleasant, uncontroversial sort—there will inevitably be moments that test the limits of our most elemental constitutional right, leading reasonable people to wonder if some restrictions on public speech are in order.
This is not one of those moments.
In the first week of January—as you might recall—the United States very nearly started a war with Iran when President Trump ordered the killing of noted general/terrorist Qasem Soleimani. This in turn led the Islamic Republic to bomb U.S. bases in Iraq, at which point Trump threatened, via Twitter, to strike various locations inside Iran, potentially including ones “important to Iran [and] the Iranian culture.”
Ultimately, the administration ruled out the possibility of targeting culturally significant sites—presumably after being informed that such a move would constitute a war crime—but not before a gentleman named Asheen Phansey, the director of sustainability at Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts, mischievously posted on Facebook:
“In retaliation, Ayatollah Khomenei [sic] should tweet a list of 52 sites of beloved American cultural heritage that he would bomb. Um…Mall of America? Kardashian residence?”
It was a cheap, naughty little quip—something many of us undoubtedly thought and/or said ourselves—but it evidently rubbed someone at Babson (Phansey’s employer) the wrong way, because four days later, Phansey was fired.
In a statement, the school wrote, “Babson College condemns any type of threatening words and/or actions condoning violence and/or hate. This particular post from a staff member on his personal Facebook page clearly does not represent the values and culture of Babson College,” adding, “[W]e are cooperating with local, state and federal authorities.”
In the weeks since Phansey’s sacking, there has been considerable pushback against Babson by the likes of Salman Rushdie, Joyce Carol Oates and PEN America. Thus far, however, Phansey has not been rehired, nor has the college shown any interest in doing so.
Speaking as someone who lives nearby and has attended on-campus events every now and again, I would advise Babson to offer Phansey his old job back and for Phansey to reject it out of hand. An institution so idiotic as to fire an employee for making a joke is unworthy of Phansey’s talents, whatever they might be.
I wrote at the outset that, as a First Amendment issue, this one is not a close call. Viewed in its full context—or, I would argue, in any context whatsoever—Phansey’s Facebook post was very obviously written in jest—an ironic commentary about a serious, if absurd, world event. In categorizing a knock on the Kardashians and the Mall of America as “threatening words and/or actions,” Babson seems to imply that it can’t distinguish humor from sincerity, begging the question of how it ever achieved accreditation in the first place.
More likely, of course, is that Babson was simply intimidated by the bombardment of complaints it apparently received following Phansey’s original post (which he swiftly deleted) and decided it would be easier and more prudent to cave in to the demands of a mob and fire Phansey on the spot, rather than defend Phansey’s right—and, by extension, the right of any faculty member—to comment on news stories in his spare time.
It was a terrible, stupid decision for Babson to make, and its silence in the intervening days has only brought further dishonor upon an otherwise sterling institute of higher learning. While it is undeniably true that a private employer has the discretion to dismiss employees who have violated official policy—the First Amendment’s provisions are explicitly limited to the public sector—the notion that making a mildly off-color remark on one’s own Facebook page constitutes a fireable offense is a horrifying precedent for a college to set, and is among the most egregious examples yet of the general squeamishness on so many American campuses toward the very concept of free expression.
As a cultural flashpoint, I am reminded of the (much larger) brouhaha surrounding Kathy Griffin in 2017, when an Instagram photo of the comedienne hoisting what appeared to be the severed head of President Trump led to Griffin being treated as a national security threat by the Justice Department and effectively banished from society for the better part of a year.
As with Phansey, no honest person could look at Griffin’s gag and say it was anything other than gallows humor—albeit an exceptionally tasteless manifestation thereof. We might agree, on reflection, that Griffin should’ve thought twice before tweeting an image of a bloodied Trump mask out into the world—to paraphrase Rabbi Mendel, not everything that is thought should be instagrammed—but there is a giant chasm between being a low-rent comedian and being a threat to public safety, and I am very, very worried that our politically correct, nuance-free culture is increasingly unable and/or unwilling to separate one from the other.
In short, we are slowly-but-surely devolving into a society without a sense of humor, a tendency that—if I may allow myself a moment of hysterical overstatement—is a gateway drug to totalitarianism. A nation without wit is a nation without a soul, and a culture that doesn’t allow its citizens to make jokes without fear of losing their livelihoods is one that has no claim to moral superiority and no right to call itself a democracy. What a shame that our universities, of all places, haven’t quite figured this out yet.