World-Burning, Intestine-Strangling, Death Threats, and Free Speech (updated w/ remarks from Jun)


“I want the entire world to burn until the last cop is strangled with the intestines of the last capitalist, who is strangled in turn with the intestines of the last politician.”

That’s what Nathan Jun, professor of philosophy at Midwestern State University in Texas, wrote in a comment on a friend’s Facebook page.

It was intended as a riff on a quote from Diderot—“Men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest”—and was made in regard to the killing of George Floyd this past May, according to Jun (as reported by Times Record News).

Jun’s comment was screenshot and circulated widely, making him the target of harassment by “a group of local far-right extremists” over the past several months, he says, with news of his words now being discussed nationally by Rush Limbaugh and others. According to The Washington Examiner, Jun says that his home was vandalized and that he has received over 300 death threats.

In late September, Jun’s university responded the controversy around his remarks by defending his freedom of speech:

“As a public university, we recognize and protect individuals’ free speech rights under the First Amendment so that ideas and information may be freely exchanged and examined without the threat of censorship or retaliation. Occasionally individuals will express opinions that may be offensive and even shocking, but are nonetheless entitled to First Amendment protection.”

However, last Thursday, Suzanne Shipley, the president of Midwestern State, wrote in a Facebook post that the university was now consulting with the Attorney General of the State of Texas and said that the university “will take decisive action if a line is crossed beyond that of speech protected by the First Amendment.” She added: “no students will be required to enroll in or complete Professor Jun’s courses. Alternatives will be provided even now if the student requests them.”

Here’s her whole post:

According to the Times Record News, Jun said:

In the 12 years I have worked at MSU I have never made any secret of my politics, nor have I shrank from expressing my political beliefs publicly, often in an inflammatory and provocative manner… All of this being said, I realize that I have put MSU in an unprecedently difficult situation and have indicated my willingness to help ameliorate the damage I have caused by whatever means are available.

(via Inside Higher Ed)

UPDATE (10/6/20): Professor Jun writes:

I am very grateful to Professor Weinberg and Daily Nous for drawing attention to my plight. Although I leave it to readers to arrive at their own conclusions concerning my actions and MSU’s response thereto, I would respectfully urge sympathetic colleagues to express their concerns to the university administration directly. Public statements of support and solidarity, as well as donations to my legal fund, will also be greatly appreciated. I am happy to answer questions and/or provide additional details concerning the broader context of the case; please feel free to contact me at (nathan [dot] jun [at] msutexas dot [edu]).

Contact information for MSU President Suzanne ShipleyProvost and Vice President for Academic Affairs James Johnston, and Board of Regents.


 

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Marxist
Marxist
6 months ago

That professor sounds pretty cool.Report

Preston Stovall
Preston Stovall
6 months ago

According to the link, under “Employment”, Jun is a full professor, not associate. And it’s a shame his university appears not to be standing by him, particularly given the riff on Diderot.Report

LESLIE GLAZER
LESLIE GLAZER
6 months ago

Free speech isn’t the same as wise speech. Certainly his right to say such things should be protected. especially on his private face book account. But, Just imagine the outcry if someone of the opposing political camp said [and let me say so no one attacks me for saying this that I do not hold this view either]: “I want the entire world to burn until the last social justice warrior is strangled with the intestines of the last socialist who is strangled in turn with the intestines of the last consumer protection regulator .” I can imagine some Trumpistas thinking something like that, but if one isn’t trying to be provocative one can easily see it is no more or less absurd as the aforementioned professor saying :“I want the entire world to burn until the last cop is strangled with the intestines of the last capitalist, who is strangled in turn with the intestines of the last politician.” In times like these I would suggest we try to be less inflammatory. there’s much too much of that alreadyReport

Commenter
Commenter
Reply to  LESLIE GLAZER
6 months ago

You say “opposing political camp” as though Jun is some kind of Biden supporting Democrat, lol. Report

kailadraper
Reply to  LESLIE GLAZER
6 months ago

I would think that someone who said that was a clueless political conservative blowing off steam. I certainly wouldn’t alert their university or employer. Really, the whole thing is silly, and the best thing about it is that Shipley’s letter is unintentionally really funny.Report

Paul Hamilton
Paul Hamilton
6 months ago

Frankly, I’m more disgusted by President Shipley’s response than I am Professor Jun’s words. Both sets seem performative. Dr. Jun’s words are so excessive that they cannot be taken seriously, even though they give the impression of capturing some genuine sentiment of his. President Shipley’s words are so excessive in their condemnation that they strike me as objectionably insincere.

Unfortunately, I do worry that she is sincere when she says “We […] will take decisive action if a line is crossed beyond that of speech protected by the First Amendment.” This is quite the threat directed towards everyone at the institution to toe an unclear line or face “decisive action.”Report

Jon Light
Jon Light
6 months ago

The First Amendment doesn’t protect everything. Imo, there’s nothing wrong with someone saying something like “we’re looking into it–if it’s not protected, then we’ll see.” In other words, it’s a substantive inquiry whether this is protected, not a pro forma one. And it trades on all sorts of things we probably don’t know much about, including, potentially, the Fifth Circuit’s 1A jurisprudence. At a minimum, it’s at least legal question, in addition to an academic freedom one.

Ofc places like FIRE are going to throw out platitudes about how everything’s protected, but that just isn’t true. (I was once at a talk with FIRE’s director, and asked him what sort of free speech restrictions on campus were reasonable. You could tell he didn’t like the question, and felt effectively cornered into saying “none”. But there’s myriad good examples he could have given, and his failure to provide them was revealing.)

This quote’s so violent that it could plausibly be illicit under *Brandenburg*, btw. It’d be negligent of the administrators not to at least try to figure that out.Report

Paul Hamilton
Paul Hamilton
Reply to  Jon Light
6 months ago

How interesting. I taught the Brandenburg case just a few weeks ago and thought that this is obviously protected speech based on the per curiam opinion in that case (the concurrences cast even broader speech protections). This isn’t an instance of fighting words, it isn’t an instance of a threat, as far as I can tell it does not advocate for imminent lawless violence. As I understand it, Brandenburg protects the advocacy of violence in the absence of imminent action, and the court quotes the decision in Noto saying “the mere abstract teaching …of the moral propriety or even moral necessity for a resort to force and violence, is not the same as preparing a group for violent action and steeling it to such action.” Jun’s statement even falls short of saying that such violence is necessary or justified. If it went that far, it would still be protected speech. The quote merely expresses a desire.
Perhaps the thought is that because Dr. Jun has received threats and experienced vandalism of his property, then it follows that his words did cause imminent violence. But concerns about reactionary violence are related to the more complicated legal issue of the heckler’s veto.
Then again, I am not a constitutional scholar and it’s possible that I misunderstand Brandenburg. If there is an analysis of the case that would understand such speech illicit, please direct me to it so I may use it when I next teach the case. Report

Matt
Reply to  Paul Hamilton
6 months ago

Yes, the speech here doesn’t come close to meeting the test from Brandenburg for being subject to regulation. If you look at the actual speech that was found to be protected in Brandenburg – KKK members burning a cross and saying that they might engage in violence, in a place where the KKK had done so – and compare it to this, it’s clear that Jun’s comments don’t come close to the line. And, while the basic idea of the university president saying “we are looking in to this” is perhaps okay, it’s so obvious that this is protected speech that, by the time the quote came up, the only plausibly reply should have been, “We have looked at the speech in question and it is constitutionally protected. While we do not agree with everything said by all faculty members, their rights to speak are protected by the Constitution, and so of course we respect that.” There is no need to say anything more. (The idea that students would need to be protected from Jun is also silly and a bit pathetic, but I suppose there is some case for making this a sop for people who want to be upset.) Report

JL
JL
Reply to  Matt
6 months ago

By “plausible”, I mean it could survive a motion to dismiss (at least). I think it could be a call to imminent violence—not that it necessarily is, but that it could be—under that jurisprudence. The issue here isn’t whether it’d win, it’s whether there’s legal exposure. It’s likely this ends up in a settlement, where Prof. Jun trades his employment for cash. Just speculation, but see various other high-profile cases.Report

Louis F. Cooper
Louis F. Cooper
Reply to  JL
6 months ago

Is something weird going on in the Fifth Circuit’s First Amendment jurisprudence? Has there been a shift in general in First Amendment law in recent years toward reading utterances or statements with a blinkered literalness? Unless the answer to one or both of these questions is yes, I don’t see how the claim that this speech is unprotected gets past the initial pleading stage.Report

Matt
Reply to  JL
6 months ago

” I think it could be a call to imminent violence”

I mean, I suppose there’s a sense of “possible” where this is so – if you could show that Jun was speaking in code to a group of followers or something. Or, if the relevant judges are going to throw out long established precedent and just make up a new one that lacks all sense of plausibility. Those things are, in some sense, “possible”. But absent those things, this is just not so. If you think it is, you should cite some cases that are recent that support the claim. Otherwise, you’re just making wild speculations here. Report

JL
JL
Reply to  Matt
6 months ago

I think you’re misunderstanding how this works. We start off in “summary judgment land”, and we’re wondering if the stuff he said is close enough to something like Brandenburg to start a trial. If so, everything changes in terms of leverage, expenses, all else. All I’m saying is there’s a good chance the university gets past summary judgment and into “trial land”, on these facts. Given the economics of litigation, that might already be a win for the university and a really hard position for the faculty member. I’ve never said—and don’t think—the university wins on the merits under Brandenburg. But that’d be post-discovery anyway, where plenty of other stuff can be found out.

My personal view is Prof. Jun has much more to be worried about than some of your posts seem to indicate.Report

Louis F. Cooper
Louis F. Cooper
Reply to  JL
6 months ago

If I’m not mistaken, the Matt in this comment thread was at one time a clerk for a federal appeals court judge. I myself certainly wasn’t that, but I did go to law school and I am a member of the bar (albeit a completely inactive one) in one U.S. jurisdiction.

I would tend to doubt that either of us is unfamiliar with the basic stages of the litigation process or is (to quote you) “misunderstanding how this works.”Report

Matt
Reply to  JL
6 months ago

Yes, I’m (also) a lawyer by training and have worked as a law clerk for federal judges for three years (including on the court of appeals.) And, I have taught first amendment law on a number of occasions. (Not as a law school subject, but in Legal Studies.) On the Brandenburg test, as it’s applied these days, this case not only wouldn’t get past summary judgment, it wouldn’t meet a laugh test. It is possible that the Pickering balancing test would be problematic, but that’s a different issue. (It also helps show why balancing tests, though common, are problematic.) And, it’s possible that a judge might decide to impose a new standard out of the blue. That happens. But again, that’s a different issue. So, unless you can show me some cases where what you suggest has happened, I’m going to go with my judgment here, which is that this isn’t even remotely unprotected speech under Brandenburg, and that anyone who tried to suggest it was would be laughed out of court. Report

Dennis Arjo
Reply to  Jon Light
6 months ago

I don’t think there’s any doubt that this is protected speech, but that by itself doesn’t mean Jun can’t be disciplined for it. The question is whether the school could argue FB posts like his sufficiently undermine its ability to efficiently and effectively discharge its mission. Legally, that would be balanced against Lun’s first amendment right to speak on issues of the day. Presumably this is what the school is looking into. The relevant case is Pickering v Board of Education.

I think the university is more likely to embarrass itself by going after Lun than by letting him say these sorts of things. The principles of academic freedom would also support him, but it’s not clear they will carry any legal weight if this were to go to litigation. This will be one to watch if he gets fired and sues.

(I’ve read a fair amount about the first amendment rights of public employees but I’m not a lawyer or legal scholar–I’d be interested in more expert opinions.)Report

Louis F. Cooper
Louis F. Cooper
Reply to  Dennis Arjo
6 months ago

Brian Leiter has a post about this in which he discusses Pickering. (You can go to his blog and scroll down a bit to find it; can’t link easily right now, sorry.)Report

Justin E. H. Smith
Justin E. H. Smith
6 months ago

I felt a special duty to write to President Shipley, given where I teach, but I would encourage others to write to her as well. Here’s my letter:

Dear President Shipley,

I am writing in regard to your announcement of October 1 concerning Professor Nathan Jun’s exercise of his First Amendment rights on Facebook.

I am an American professor of philosophy on the faculty at the University of Paris 7 – Denis Diderot. My university’s namesake, as much as my American upbringing, has made me particularly sensitive to the importance of the right to free speech. More than that, it has made me particularly fond of the creative spirit of people like Professor Jun, learned and lucid enough to make the words of Diderot their own.

I understand that in principle words that seem to incite violence are not protected by the First Amendment in the United States, or by comparable laws governing expression elsewhere. But here are some important considerations militating against the view that Professor Jun’s words are of this sort.

Do you truly believe Professor Jun envisions a plausible course of action on which every last politician in the world is strangled, and by someone else’s intestines at that? Plainly, the provocation is meant not as an incitement to violence, but as an incitement to imagination, which is governed by different rules, both morally and politically, than action is.

Second, the attribution of Professor Jun’s statement to the realm of the imagination is further justified by its status as literary paraphrase. If I say “Philistines be upon thee” after reading about a gun-rights rally at the Texas state capitol, it is plain that I am not literally calling for an ancient Levantine tribe to attack Texas, but rather am drawing on my knowledge of the Bible to make a literary comparison about the current state of affairs and the ancient one. Similarly, when Professor Jun invokes Diderot’s words, he is making a comparison between our present moment and Diderot’s, and is at least no more guilty of incitement than his literary forebear.

So then, finally, we come to the question whether Diderot was guilty. History has not judged him so, certainly. In fact, Diderot is considered a great patriot in France, and public institutions memorialize his name — such as, again, the one in which I teach. The quote in question comes from a 1772 poem, which became well known after the Revolution of 1789. It is entitled “Les Éleuthéromanes”, which might be translated as “The Lovers of Freedom”. Freedom is a foundational, inalienable value of the French Revolution, which was triggered into motion both by the American Revolution thirteen years prior and by the elaboration of ideals of freedom by French thinkers such as Diderot. Professor Jun is living out the legacy of these twinned revolutions. He is the heir to them, and a state university system that denies him the right to this heritage is betraying them.

The world is watching, and we trust that you will make the right decisions in this matter.

Sincerely,

Justin E. H. Smith
University Professor, First Class
Department of History and Philosophy of Science
University of Paris 7 – Denis Diderot Report

ajkreider
ajkreider
Reply to  Justin E. H. Smith
6 months ago

A very well-written and argued letter, with which I of course largely agree. However, I’m not sure that the “became well know after the Revolution of 1789” , helps the case that the comments in question were hyperbole. Living out that legacy, sure, but perhaps not in full.Report

SCM
SCM
6 months ago

Incidentally, Diderot adapted the original quote from the atheist priest Jean Meslier’s Testament.Report

Louis F. Cooper
6 months ago

It’s been a long time since I took constitutional law, but this is unquestionably protected speech under the First Amendment as SCOTUS has interpreted it in the modern era. I would suggest that one of the whole points of the First Am., as SCOTUS has interpreted it in the last 60 years or so, is precisely to protect inflammatory speech. “Fuck the draft” is, or was, inflammatory, and the Court found that to be protected in a case that contains one of the few truly memorable lines in First Am. jurisprudence (“one man’s vulgarity is another’s lyric”). Flag-burning has been ruled protected speech. One could go on. The riff on Diderot here is so deliberately over the top that no one can read it as a call to actually go out and commit violence, and even so read it would very likely be protected in the absence of some link to imminent action, as P. Hamilton points out above.

In short, this sort of thing is squarely within the bounds of the “modern” First Amendment’s protection. It’s not a close question. Report

TPD108
TPD108
6 months ago

Am I the only one who is most disturbed by Jun’s use of “have shrank” instead of “have shrunk” and the subsequent failure of anyone to call him out on it? He’s supposed to know these things. Report

Rollo Burgess
Rollo Burgess
6 months ago

This obviously a riff on Diderot and while I’m certainly no expert on US free speech protection this seems to me to be precisely the kind of speech that should be protected – speech that will be universally popular doesn’t need protection!

I would say that keeping one’s ‘speech’, of whatever kind, away from the moron-fest of social media is a good idea if you don’t want to engage with the recreationally enraged.Report

Dave Baker
Dave Baker
6 months ago

This sort of private speech policing is unconscionable, and this threat would still be an offense against Professor Jun’s autonomy even if there were no exculpatory context and his statement was exactly as “offensive” as it looks at first glance. Hopefully this will go no further. Report

Jean Kazez
Jean Kazez
6 months ago

How truly bizarre and contemptible that Shipley is consulting with the TX AG –no other than Ken Paxton, who has recently been accused of bribery and abuse of his office by seven of his top aides and who regularly takes repugnant positions on issues facing Texas. Report