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University of San Diego: Professor's comments in blog protected by academic freedom policy

Posted at 1:04 PM, May 04, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-04 16:51:51-04

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) — The University of San Diego said Tuesday that a professor accused of using offensive language when referring to people from China in a blog post is protected by the university's academic freedom policy.

USD Vice President and Provost Gail Baker said in a release that a legal review of law professor Tom Smith's blog post comments was conducted after accusations that his post had violated university and School of Law policies.

Smith's post that received backlash referenced an article from the Wall Street Journal about the coronavirus and Wuhan, China. The professor wrote, “If you believe that the coronavirus did not escape from the lab in Wuhan, you have to at least consider that you are an idiot who is swallowing a whole lot of Chinese -------.”

RELATED: Asian lawyer organizations condemn USD professor's comments

Baker said, "it was determined that the expression was protected by that policy. This conclusion in no way amounts to an endorsement by the university of the opinions shared in the blog post."

Baker's full statement:

"We recently received complaints relating to a post by USD Law Professor Tom Smith on his personal blog concerning the causes of COVID-19. The complaints alleged violations of various university and School of Law policies.

As a threshold matter, we sought to determine whether the blog post at issue was protected by our policy on academic freedom. After a thorough legal review, it was determined that the expression was protected by that policy.

This conclusion in no way amounts to an endorsement by the university of the opinions shared in the blog post.

Academic freedom lies at the core of the mission of the University of San Diego. At the same time, we are committed to providing an educational environment that honors the dignity of every individual. Those two commitments can and must co-exist. It is important that members of the university community exercise their freedom in a responsible fashion, attentive to the impact of their protected opinions and sensitive to all members of the community, especially those who may feel vulnerable, marginalized or fearful that they are not welcomed. Members of the university community may feel an obligation, and certainly have the freedom, to criticize opinions that they believe demean the dignity of others.

As a contemporary Catholic university, we have a responsibility to promote a safe, just and inclusive environment within the university and in the larger society. We recently announced The Horizon Project, a comprehensive five-year plan to take concrete action to build a more inclusive campus community. As part of that project, the School of Law has announced specific initiatives to promote diversity, equity and inclusion within the law school community. This vital work is ongoing and will remain a focus for continuing and additional action by the university and the School of Law."

Various organizations and students spoke out against the blog post in March, saying it added to a national trend of anti-Asian rhetoric.

“As lawyers, we’re all about free speech. We understand the importance of that and I would say actually, the students are exercising theirs as well," Esther Bylsma, the president-elect of the Pan Asian Lawyers of San Diego, told ABC 10News in March. "The lack of his response and his lack of his actual desire to actually talk to his students, I think that kind of demonstrates that the fallacy of the whole academic freedom argument."

A letter by the Pan Asian Lawyers, Filipino American Lawyers of San Diego, and Korean American Bar Association of San Diego said students and organizations have "expressed concerns that Professor Smith is creating a hostile learning environment" and that "his blog makes it clear that he is eager to court controversy despite his role as a teacher to many of the same individuals he disparages."