By Lena Williams, Guild-CWA :: Larycia Hawkins’ Facebook post was short and sweet, thoughtful and inspirational.
On Dec. 10, 2015, Dr. Hawkins, a tenured associate professor of political science at Wheaton College in Illinois, posted a photo of herself wearing a hijab and wrote of standing “in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.”
Hawkins wasn’t trying to provoke controversy with her comments, writing of “being in human solidarity with my Muslim neighbor because we are formed of the same primordial clay, descendants of the same cradle of humankind. I love my Muslim neighbor because s/he deserves love by virtue of her/his human dignity.”
Hawkins said she wanted to show solidarity with Muslims facing religious discrimination. She thought her post would stimulate a discussion on monotheism, the belief of one God, and foster empathy across religious boundaries. She never dreamed that her comments would cost her job.
But they did.
Administrators at the evangelical, liberal arts college in Wheaton, Ill., took strong exception to Hawkins’ views. One week after her post, Hawkins was placed on administrative leave and subsequently urged to resign.
Wheaton officials seem to recognize Hawkins has a First Amendment right – as long as she exercises it in ways that “support and advance our biblical mission.”
In a statement Dec. 12, college President Philip G. Ryken said Hawkins’ words, not her appearance in a scarf, were the issue: “Some recent faculty statements have generated confusion about complex theological matters and could be interpreted as failing to reflect the distinctively Christian theological identity of Wheaton College.”
The First Amendment may guarantee freedom of religion and speech but upon entering into an employment agreement at Wheaton, faculty voluntarily commit to support and advance the school’s “biblical mission; accept and model the ‘statement of faith’ with integrity, compassion and theological clarity, and live and teach within our community covenant.”
School officials said Hawkins failed to adhere to the signed agreement in making the comments on her personal Facebook page.
She was told that “theological clarification” was necessary before she could resume her full duties.
Hawkins declined, choosing to resign even though she drew substantial support on Facebook from people who identified themselves as friends, students at the university and acquaintances.
Kelsie Wendelberger, a Wheaton graduate, told The New York Times, that Hawkins was “one of my favorite, most influential professors.”
“Wheaton is holding a double-standard,” Wendelberger said. “I was saddened by it. I thought they reacted the wrong way. They could have made headlines by showing a story of love, by a teacher showing solidarity.”
Instead, the school made national headlines by its blatant disregard for the First Amendment.
In doing so, Wheaton administrators sent the wrong message to its students and missed a golden opportunity to teach students about their constitutional rights.
While Hawkins’ dismissal was condemned by civil liberties and First Amendment advocates, another college professor, who claimed she was exercising her students’ right to assembly and individual privacy, was fired last month for interfering with journalists’ reporting on a student protest at the University of Missouri last November.
Melissa Click, an assistant professor of communications at Missouri, was seen on a video on Nov. 9 trying, with dozens of student protesters, to prevent photographers from approaching the protesters’ encampment on the Missouri campus. When a student making a video of the protest identified himself as a journalist, Click told him to leave, grabbed at his camera and then called out: “Hey, who wants to help me get this reporter out of here? I need some muscle over here.”
In October Click got involved in a confrontation with the police, along with students, who were trying to block a homecoming parade.
After an investigation by the university’s governing board, Click was suspended. She was told she could appeal the decision.
“The board believes that Dr. Click’s conduct was not compatible with university policies and did not meet expectations for a university faculty member,” Pam Henrickson, the board chairwoman, said in a statement last month
“The circumstances surrounding Dr. Click’s behavior, both at a protest in October when she tried to interfere with police officers who were carrying out their duties, and at a rally in November, when she interfered with members of the media and students who were exercising their rights in a public space and called for intimidation against one of our students, we believe demands serious action.”
Click has since apologized for her actions saying she was “embarrassed and sorry.”
Students at the university had set up an encampment in a public quad on campus last November to protest racial discrimination at the school. Some of the students blocked access to the camp by outsiders, including members of the media, insisting they had a right to privacy even in a public space.
Several of the protesters refused to talk to the media, invoking their right to privacy. Journalists chided Click and the students. The media, they said, had a legal right to enter the space because it was in a public area.
As a professor of mass communications, Click, of all people, should have understood those rights.
Instead, she missed a teachable moment, a fact pointed out by ConcernedStudent1950, the group organizing the protest over racial discrimination at the university.
“Teachable moment,” the organization said in a statement, acknowledging that the media had a right to be there and that the media was important to tell the story of what was going at the university.
“Let’s welcome and thank them,” the group.
There are lessons to be learned and taught at both universities and others, for that matter.
In Hawkins’ case, Wheaton administrators set a poor example for its students by violating an individual’s right to free speech.