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Academic Freedom or Harassment?: Professor Punished for Criticizing Some Student Athletes and Showing Anti-Porn Film in Class

(April 14, 2013) - Last week, the trustees of Appalachian State University rejected the appeal of sociology professor Jammie Price from actions taken against her by the university because she allegedly created a "hostile environment" in class. Price's offenses included criticism of student athletes with respect to recent allegations of sexual assault, and the showing of a documentary, The Price of Pleasure: Pornography, Sexuality, and Relationships, which examines the effect of pornography on popular culture and attitudes.

Responding to student complaints, the university on March 16, 2012 placed Price, a tenured professor, on administrative leave pending completion of an investigation, banned her from the classrooms and facilities of the university's College of Arts & Sciences, prohibited her from talking about the accusations with students or colleagues, and assigned her to create a "professional development plan" that would include training on how to deal with "sensitive topics in the classroom." Despite assurances in the faculty handbook, Price received no hearing or other formal opportunity to defend herself before the punishments were imposed.

In some cases, there is a fine line between academic freedom and harassment, but showing a film in class that might offend some students, or criticizing campus athletes, are not close to the line. As the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education ("FIRE") pointed out in a letter to the chair of the board of trustees, "professors do not create a 'hostile environment' simply by offending their students." FIRE cited U.S. Office of Civil Rights guidelines, which state:

In cases of alleged harassment, the protections of the First Amendment must be considered if issues of speech or expression are involved. ... [T]he offensiveness of a particular expression as perceived by some students, standing alone, is not a legally sufficient basis to establish a sexually hostile environment.

FIRE is continuing to follow the case and support Professor Price's efforts to vindicate her rights to academic freedom and due process. See Appalachian State University: Professor Suspended for Classroom Speech for more information.


The Free Expression Policy Project began in 2000 as a project of the National Coalition Against Censorship, to provide empirical research and policy development on tough censorship issues and seek free speech-friendly solutions to the concerns that drive censorship campaigns. In 2004-2007, it was part of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. Past funders have included the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Educational Foundation of America, the Open Society Institute, and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

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