Stephen Kershnar, a philosophy professor at the State University of New York at Fredonia, finds himself in a state of academic purgatory. He has been employed by the university for over a year but has not been allowed to teach or even set foot on campus. This is a result of controversial remarks he made in a 2022 podcast regarding the morality of an adult male having sex with a “willing” 12-year-old girl. While Kershnar stated that he believes such acts should be criminalized, he questioned whether they are inherently wrong from an ethical standpoint.
The controversy surrounding Kershnar began when his remarks went viral after being posted by the right-wing social media account, LibsofTikTok. The president of SUNY Fredonia, Stephen H. Kolison Jr., swiftly responded, condemning the professor's comments as "absolutely abhorrent." Kolison reassigned Kershnar to duties that did not involve direct contact with students and initiated an investigation into the matter. As part of this investigation, Kershnar's office was searched, and his computer was seized by the police.
Fast forward 19 months, and Kershnar is now suing the university, seeking the right to return to campus. The hearing for his case began on Wednesday in the Federal District Court for the Western District of New York. In his lawsuit, Kershnar argues that the university has yielded to a "social media heckler's veto," allowing public and political reactions to dictate who can teach at a public university. He claims that he has never been charged or arrested by any law enforcement agency, except for minor traffic infractions.
Supporters of free speech have rallied behind Kershnar, considering the university's actions to be a direct attack on academic freedom. They accuse SUNY Fredonia of using safety concerns as a pretext to silence Kershnar's controversial views. However, the university defends its decision, citing threats made against Kershnar and the campus community. Campus police chief Brent S. Isaacson, in a court filing, expressed concerns that Kershnar's return would provoke public disgust and potentially put the campus at risk of violence.
The university also suggests that there have been financial repercussions as a result of Kershnar's remarks. They claim that students and alumni have expressed outrage, leading to a loss of donations and a decline in enrollment. The university declined to comment on the ongoing litigation.
This case highlights the ongoing debates surrounding the handling of online controversies, academic discourse, and campus safety. As public universities are bound by the First Amendment, questions arise about whether they can restrict professors from campus based on comments made outside of their teaching duties. The issue of determining the legitimacy of threats also comes into play. Is a vague possibility of violence enough to justify barring a professor from campus indefinitely?
To provide context, Kershnar has a history of taking provocative positions and engaging in rigorous philosophical analysis of controversial topics. He has written extensively on topics such as pedophilia and the moral status of adult-child sex. His aim is to challenge fundamental assumptions and gain a clearer understanding of morality. However, this has often resulted in controversies, leading to what has been coined “Kershnar Cycles” within the discipline of philosophy.
The fallout from Kershnar's podcast remarks was swift, with demands for his removal flooding in from various sources. A petition started by a Fredonia undergraduate garnered over 60,000 signatures, citing concerns about safety and the impact on a community already dealing with instances of sexual assault. Alumni also threatened to withhold donations. Members of the New York State Assembly wrote to the chancellor of the SUNY system, calling for Kershnar's immediate removal.
The situation escalated further when the university received what they deemed as threats of violence. Court filings included quotes from individuals expressing violent intentions towards Kershnar. The campus police chief at the time recommended that Kershnar remain off campus until the situation calmed down, as a precautionary measure. The university argues that ensuring the safety of the professor would require an extraordinary and financially prohibitive expansion of the campus police department.
Kershnar's lawsuit challenges the university's claim that the cited messages constitute actual threats that justify barring him from campus. Advocates of academic freedom find it troubling that the mere possibility of violence can indefinitely restrict a professor's access to campus. They argue that accepting such a principle would enable the banning of any speech one dislikes. Mark Oppenheimer, a lawyer and co-host of the podcast on which Kershnar made the controversial remarks, emphasizes that philosophy often generates wild and strange cases that can be misunderstood by the public. He suggests that this is precisely what happened to Kershnar.
themes: New York (state)