TAMPA (tampabay.com) — A tweet suggesting that the devastation of Hurricane Harvey was “instant karma” for the red state of Texas has cost a University of Tampa professor his job — making him just the latest academic fired for off-duty speech.
The University first distanced itself from sociology professor Kenneth L. Storey on Monday. But a tide of online outrage continued. A #FireKenStorey hashtag spread far beyond the university. Angry Facebook comments piled up.
“Don’t think this is a school we will be looking at for my daughter anymore,” one commenter said. An alumnus wrote, “Good thing I already paid you, because I’ll never send the school another dime again.”
On Tuesday morning, the university fired him.
“We condemn the comments and the sentiment behind them, and understand the pain this irresponsible act has caused,” spokesman Eric Cardenas said in a statement.
Storey told the Tampa Bay Times that, while saddened, he understands UT’s decision. He got caught up in today’s political climate, he said, and knows now that every 140-character post needs to be able to stand on its own.
“What they see in those tweets is not who I am,” he said. “How I worded it was wrong. I care about people. I love this country. I would never want to wish harm upon anyone.”
The university has no clear policy on protections for speech like Storey’s, said longtime communication professor Gregg Bachman. Though the tweet was “impulsive, immature and insensitive,” Bachman said, he flinched at seeing a fellow professor fired amid blurry boundaries.
“I can feel a slight chill in the air over this,” Bachman said. “I want to see that policy, and if it’s not there, I want it developed, because faculty can’t feel exposed like this.”
Meanwhile, a group that fights for civil liberties in academia has taken up the issue, disappointed that UT “caved” to the pressure of “outrage mobs” online.
“Many universities seem to decide, ‘Well, it’s not worth the trouble of sticking up for our faculty members’ rights,’ and that’s troubling,” said Ari Cohn, an attorney with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. “Other faculty members are going to think twice before speaking publicly, and that’s to the detriment of everybody.”
Storey has worked as an adjunct professor at UT since 2011. This was his first semester as a visiting assistant professor. Now other sociology faculty will take over his classes.
Storey’s controversial tweet, which has been deleted, first drew the ire of conservative websites Turning Point USA and Campus Reform.
Referencing the hurricane, it read: “I dont believe in instant karma but this kinda feels like it for Texas. Hopefully this will help them realize the GOP doesnt care about them.”
In a follow-up, he said that “good people” in red states like Texas and Florida “need to do more to stop the evil their state pushes.” He continued: “I’m only blaming those who support the GOP there.”
As the tweets spread, so did anger. Storey’s name was added to a website called Professor Watchlist, a project to “expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.”
Eventually Storey removed the entire thread, as well as his profile photo. He posted an apology on Monday.
“I never meant to wish ill will upon any group,” he wrote. “I hope all affected by Harvey recover quickly.”
Storey said his tweets were taken out of context. In a statement sent to ABC Action News, he said was referring to the “GOP denial of climate change science and push to decrease funds from agencies that can help in a time like this.”
Meanwhile, the university took to Facebook, expressing solidarity for Harvey’s victims and condemning Storey’s tweets. Still, a deluge of calls, emails and comments demanded Storey’s firing. Most of the anger came from people with no affiliation with the university, its spokesman said.
By Tuesday morning, Storey’s page on the university website had been erased.
Then came his termination.
Storey said he is taking the situation “day by day,” and has not decided whether he will pursue legal action.
During the first, rainy week of the new semester, several students said they were glad to see Storey answer to his tweets.
For Houston native Neisha Gamble, the comments particularly stung.
Gamble, 20, said she is still trying to get in touch with her family in a severely flooded area.
“Yes, he has free speech, but there are some things you should just keep to yourself,” she said, sitting in the university’s crowded Vaughn Center. The school made the right call, she said.
“Don’t wish that upon anyone, and then send a fake apology out,” she said.
Pulling an umbrella from her bag, Apollo Beach freshman Erin Hanson said, “As a professor and having a leadership position, it’s kind of his job to keep his opinions to himself.”
Patrick Holt, a junior, said he didn’t believe the tweet when he first saw it.
“I thought it was pretty messed up,” Holt said. “Twitter’s the area for free speech, and you can say what you want, but there’s an ethical line.”
Social media firestorms have only heated up since the 2016 election, said Cohn, the attorney. In an era when universities often fold in the face of a public relations fiasco, the voices of internet crusaders hold serious sway.
In recent months, professors from California to New Jersey have been fired for social media posts and speaking appearances. At Fresno State, a lecturer tweeted that President Trump “must hang” to “save American democracy.” A professor at Brigham Young University-Idaho wrote a private Facebook post supporting LGBT equality. Both lost their jobs.
UT’s faculty handbook uses guidance from the American Association of University Professors, which states that, when teachers speak as citizens, “they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline.”
Still, the policy states, they should be accurate, respect others’ opinions, “exercise appropriate restraint” and make it clear they’re not speaking for their institution. Only if speech raises “grave doubts concerning the teacher’s fitness” may a school proceed with discipline, it says.
UT’s procedures for doing so are not entirely clear.
“We will have to have a deeper and more extensive conversation among the faculty and among the senior academic leadership in order to clarify these lines,” said Bachman, also the Faculty Senate president.
The AAUP said it will be following the case.
“In the meantime we continue to call on college and university leaders to denounce the targeted online harassment of their faculty members and to more forthrightly defend academic freedom,” said Henry Reichman, first vice president of the organization.