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There has been a national conversation about the limits of free speech on college campuses and what faculty can say on their personal social media accounts.

August 12, 2020

Cornell Alumnus Faces Backlash Over Anti-Police Tweet at Auburn University

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Editor’s note: This story contains references to sexual assault and homophobia. 

Before he even steps foot on campus, people are already calling for Auburn University to fire Jesse Goldberg M.A. ’15 Ph.D. ’18 over a tweet admonishing police officers.

In a since deleted tweet, the Black studies scholar wrote, “Fuck every single cop. Every single one. The only ethical choice for any cop to make at this point is to refuse to do their job and quit. The police do not protect people. They protect capital. They are instruments of violence on behalf of capital.”

Goldberg’s July 28 tweet was a response to an American Civil Liberties Union tweet about a protester — later identified as Nikki Stone, an 18-year-old trans woman — who unmarked officers abducted and forced into an unmarked van.

Alabama-based conservative media outlet Yellowhammer News shared the tweet July 30, leading to an onslaught of hate on Twitter condemning Goldberg, with many users saying he should never teach at Auburn and making violent and targeted threats at him. The backlash included a tweet from the president’s son Donald Trump Jr. to his 5.4 million Twitter followers.

Three months prior, Goldberg first stirred controversy with the Alabama outlet when he tweeted about the Auburn battle cry: “I know it’s just a mascot but I’m never gonna be able to call myself a ‘war eagle’ or say ‘go war eagles.’ Sorry.”

The aftermath at Auburn

Among the responses, Auburn said Goldberg’s police tweet was “hate speech” and “simply wrong,” in its first statement to the Columbus, Georgia-based TV station WRBL on July 31. In a statement to The Sun on Aug. 3, Auburn softened its stance, making no mention of “hate speech.”

In a previous controversy, Goldberg questioned the Auburn motto "war eagle."

Kevin D. Liles / The New York Times

In a previous controversy, Goldberg questioned the Auburn motto “war eagle.”

“As stated earlier this week, Mr. Goldberg’s comments on social media are inexcusable and completely antithetical to the Auburn Creed,” the statement read. “Higher education is built upon the premise of the free expression of ideas and academic dialogue, but Auburn has not and will never support views that exclude or disrespect others, including hateful speech that degrades law enforcement professionals.”

In addition to condemning Goldberg’s tweet, Auburn added that it was “assess[ing] the situation,” given that Goldberg was hired to be a lecturer — a temporary, non-tenure-track position. Goldberg explained to The Sun that he learned this online because Auburn hadn’t reached out to him on the matter.

“I thought for a few days I was going to lose my job, and I was terrified,” Goldberg said. “It was really scary as a contingent worker. The vast majority of [faculty] don’t have the protection of tenure.”

Because of safety concerns, the Auburn English department ultimately offered Goldberg the option to relieve him of his teaching duties but maintain his contract as a visiting research fellow one week after the initial tweet. Goldberg accepted the offer, but was disappointed that the only contact with the institution lacked any substantial support.

After the dust settled from the backlash — which included death and rape threats, anti-Semitism and homophobia — Goldberg said he was frustrated that the entire discussion about and outrage over his tweet detracted from any conversation about police violence and anti-Black racism.

Police abolition studies

While a graduate student at Cornell, Goldberg taught various writing seminars in the English department and American studies program, including “The Legal Life of American Racism,” “Race, Law, and the Black Lives Matter Movement” and “Great New Books: Memory, Identity, and Rupture.”

He also taught English and writing classes for the Cornell Prison Education Program and at Cayuga Community College and served as the arts and humanities voting member on the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly.

Prof. Christine Yao M.A. ’13 Ph.D. ’16, English, University College London, who knew Goldberg at Cornell, called him a “passionate advocate for social justice and for the graduate student community.”

Incoming Auburn University faculty Jesse Goldberg M.A. ’15 Ph.D. ’18 became the center of a conversation about free speech after an incendiary tweet.

Incoming Auburn University faculty Jesse Goldberg M.A. ’15 Ph.D. ’18 became the center of a conversation about free speech after an incendiary tweet.

Goldberg’s dissertation was titled The Excessive Present of Abolition: The Afterlife of Slavery in Law, Literature, and Performance. After receiving his Ph.D., he taught at Longwood University as a visiting assistant professor of English.

“I am disappointed by the reactions to his tweets: the offending tweet in question did not call for violence against the police but for those within the institution to voluntarily leave the profession because of its structural violence,” Yao said. “The reaction willfully misreads this tweet and also ignores that police abolition is a legitimate field of academic study and debate regardless of personal opinions about these issues.”

Goldberg reiterated this sentiment, asserting that while his tweet was “certainly unprofessional,” it couldn’t be considered hate speech because it neither incited violence nor targeted a disenfranchised or marginalized group.

“There is no such thing as hate speech against armed officers of the state,” Goldberg said in response to the characterization of his tweet as hate speech. “Hate speech is not about perception of being insulted or even that people hate you.”

Free speech, hate speech and higher education

This incident comes amid a broader conversation about the limits of free speech, especially on college campuses nationwide. While conversations mostly surrounded invited speakers, recent questions have been raised about professors and what they can say on their personal social media accounts.

Since 1915, the American Association of University Professors has agreed that — unless they act in their official capacity to obstruct the ability of others to work or learn — university faculty must have the freedom to research, freedom to teach and freedom from institutional reprisal when they speak or write as citizens.

This blurs lines for universities when called to reprimand faculty for saying or posting controversial opinions. Their speech is protected by the First Amendment, but students have often felt like the same opinions obstruct their ability to learn.

Cornell grappled with this same dilemma during its own reckoning with the limits of free speech, after Prof. David Collum ’77, chemistry, defended police officers who pushed a man to the ground — causing him to bleed from the head — on Twitter.

After news of his tweets and subsequent stepping down from his position of director of undergraduate studies, there have been continued calls for his firing, especially given his history of making incendiary statements. But Cornell has maintained that he has a right to free speech.

“While Professor Collum has a right to express his views in his private life, we also have a right and an obligation to call out positions that are at direct odds with Cornell’s ethos,” President Martha E. Pollack said in a statement.

In fall 2019, Auburn faced the same issue, when an education professor’s various anti-LGBTQ+ social media posts came to light.

Prof. Bruce Murray, education, Auburn University held his stances, telling the Auburn Plainsman that it’s “normal” to oppose the LGBTQ+ community because “we should dislike the things that destroy us, the things that injure us.” Murray promised that he keeps his views out of his education classes and was adamant that he “tolerates” students’ “sexual immorality.” But many students said they felt like they would be unsafe in his classes.

After outrage over Murray’s posts, Auburn released a statement in October 2019 that made no mention of “hate speech.” And there was no subsequent assessment of Murray’s tenure.

“Auburn supports the constitutional right and institutional value of free speech,” the statement read. “At the same time, we don’t condone speech that is exclusionary or disrespectful to specific individuals or groups as we strive to prepare students for life and leadership in a global economy and multicultural world.”

Two months later in December 2019, Auburn released a second statement announcing its commitment to “an inclusive environment for the LGBTQ community,” and mentioning “recent events on campus [that] have generated climate concerns.”

In a Aug. 3 letter to the editor to The Auburn Plainsman, Auburn Ph.D. student Kayleigh Chalkowski compared these two incidents — and Auburn’s varied responses — asking, “Where does Auburn University draw the line on freedom of speech?”