Free speech vs. hate speech: professor tests the limits

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By Paige Bowman
May 4, 2023

Questions around free speech and academic freedom have been prevalent in colleges and universities around the country. This conversation has made it's way to Cabrini with the firing of former professor Kareem Tannous. Photo by Cojanu  Alexandru via Pexels.
Questions around free speech and academic freedom have been prevalent in colleges and universities around the country. This conversation has made it's way to Cabrini with the firing of former professor Kareem Tannous. Photo by Cojanu Alexandru via Pexels.

Is hate speech protected by academic freedom? Former Cabrini professor Kareem Tannous is suing the school to find out.

Cabrini hired Dr. Kareem Tannous as an assistant business professor on June 26, 2020. Tannous, a Palestinian-American who grew up in the Philadelphia area, was hired on a tenure track contract to teach business, economics, finance, and accounting. 

During Cabrini’s annual evaluation of tenure-track professors, Tannous’ contract was renewed for the 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 school years.

However, while he was under contract as a professor, Tannous was active on his personal Twitter account (@GenerousAdvice) criticizing the state of Israel, the ideology of Zionism, and calling Ashkenazi Jewish people “fake Jews.” A series of tweets between March and May 2022 even made the false claim that Hitler was Jewish, that Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky is a “Jew war criminal,” that Jewish people are responsible for the Holocaust, antisemitism, hate crimes, and more.

On February 2, 2022, Cabrini received a letter from The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia calling out Dr. Tannous’ Twitter account and flagging his tweets as antisemitic. The letter specifically references Tannous’ tweets on International Holocaust Remembrance Day where he writes: 

Tweets from Dr. Tannous were flagged by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia as antisemitic rhetoric. Both of these tweets were posted on International Holocaust Remembrance Day from Tannous’ personal twitter account. Screenshot via Twitter

This letter and an article from stopantisemitism.org labeling Tannous as their “Antisemite of the Week” were sent to Cabrini’s administration in July 2022. According to Tannous’ lawsuit acquired by The Loquitur, interim President Helen Drinan subsequently called for a Zoom meeting with Tannous after receiving this notice.

The July 20, 2022 meeting included President Drinan, Cabrini’s human resources director, and a representative of Palestine Legal, Amal Thabateh. After the meeting, Tannous received a letter from Cabrini on August 5, 2022, saying his employment at the university was terminated as of August 12, 2022.

Tannous’ firing comes during a time when the Anti-Defamation League, ADL, reported 3,697 antisemitic incidents throughout the U.S. in 2022. This marked a 36% increase from 2021 and is the highest number ADL recorded since 1979.  Pennsylvania accounted for 114 of these 2022 incidents.

Dr. Ruta Clair chairs Cabrini’s psychology department and serves as faculty advisor for the Jewish Student Union. She added insight into how Cabrini’s Jewish community is impacted by these recent trends.

“There is a cultural kind of comfort with ideas that can be viewed as threatening to the Jewish community,” Clair said. “There’s comfort with antisemitism, unfortunately.” 

The line for academic freedom

The Cabrini Trading Lab on the 3rd floor of Founders Hall is a classroom for many business and accounting majors. Photo by Jason Fridge.

A March Philadelphia Inquirer article claimed Tannous planned to file a lawsuit against Cabrini for wrongful termination. In the article, Tannous claimed his personal tweets were separate from his teaching and were an expression of his freedom of speech.

“I’m just reporting and showing the world and speaking about the atrocities going on,” Tannous told the Inquirer. “I wasn’t teaching the history of the Middle East, I was teaching accounting.”

But if his political beliefs didn’t enter the classroom, they were prevalent online. 

While these comments were made away from the classroom, the outside image of a professor could still affect the university. Chapter 2 Section 1.1 of the Cabrini Faculty Handbook says of faculty members:

 “As scholars and educational officers, they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence, they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.” 

However, this section also says educators “should be free from institutional censorship or discipline.” Tannous claims that he fully complied with the policy, never indicating his affiliation with Cabrini on his personal Twitter account.

“I don’t think there were threatening statements [from Tannous] and Cabrini has a broad freedom of speech clause in the handbook,” said Tannous’ attorney, Mark Schwartz. “It’s important to add that it was third parties that got him fired. Students never voiced any issues, he never brought his views into class. This was all done as a result of third parties.”

Some of his students echoed these claims.

“I don’t ever remember him bringing up politics in class other than talking about economic implications of the FED,” said Garrett Laraia, graduate accounting major. “I enjoyed his class. He had knowledge of economics and lead good discussions.”

However, a number of Tannous’ female students echoed the sentiments of graduate accounting major Ally Wojton who said, “He was one of the most misogynistic people I’ve ever had as a professor.”

Clair added insight into what it is like to live as a professor both in and out of the classroom.

“When you are a professor at an institution, you never drop that mantle,” said Clair. “I am constantly aware that in my life, I represent myself but also my work. I publish research, I’ve been interviewed by Vice UK about my research, and in all those moments I am representing the institution as well as myself.”

Tannous claims the university violated his civil rights and ignored principles of academic freedom characteristic of higher education in America. His attorney Mr. Schwartz filed Tannous’  lawsuit on March 22, 2023, claiming discrimination under six counts, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

What comes next?

Tannous’ lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania and includes the Jewish Federation, two of its leaders, stopantisemitism.org, and 20 John and Jane Does. It is now a waiting game to see how the case will play out.

In response to the original letters that asked Cabrini to take action on Tannous, the Foundation of Individual Rights and Expression, F.I.R.E., sent their own letter on April 14, 2023, to President Drinan calling for Cabrini to reinstate Tannous by April 28, 2023, and requesting a response.

As of the publishing of this article, Cabrini has not responded to this request.

The Loquitur will continue to follow this situation as it relates to the greater debate around free speech in higher education across the country.

The Loquitur reached out to Cabrini’s administration, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, and stopantisemitism.org for a statement, but due to the ongoing lawsuit, all declined to comment.

Jason Fridge contributed to the creation of this article. 

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Paige Bowman

My name is Paige Bowman. I am a junior digital communication major, minoring in marketing. I’m from Watsontown, located in rural central Pennsylvania. At Cabrini, I have played on the women’s soccer team for all three of my years. I have been playing soccer since I was four years old and can’t remember a time before it. In my free time, I am an avid hiker, runner, and kayaker. I take my dog, Clementine, with me on all my adventures. She is a rescue from South Carolina who shares the same interests as me. Some of my other passions include painting and art of any kind. I help create graphics and game day edits for my soccer team. During the school year, I live off campus in the nearby town of Conshohocken. When I’m not at school, I love to visit my grandma Rita and play card games with her. To this day she has yet to beat me in a game of Rummy.

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