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Debate surrounding Professor Joshua Clover’s comments raise questions of academic freedom, constructive discussion
In an opinion article, columnist Nick Irvin of The Aggie called for administrative action against UC Davis English and comparative literature professor Joshua Clover for anti-police comments. California Assemblyman James Gallagher has since started a petition calling for Clover to be fired.
Clover’s comments in question include two tweets from 2014 and an interview with SF Weekly from 2015. In one of the tweets, Clover wrote that he was “thankful that every living cop will one day be dead,” and another that asked, “I mean, it’s easier to shoot cops when their backs are turned, no?” Clover’s Twitter account is now private, preventing certainty of the tweets’ background; however, for reference, the first tweet took place the same week that 12-year-old Tamir E. Rice was fatally shot by police. In the interview, Clover said, “People think that cops need to be reformed. They need to be killed.” Clover reportedly told Irvin to “direct any further questions to the family of Michael Brown” of the fatal Ferguson shooting.
Irvin framed Clover’s comments in the context of Officer Natalie Corona’s fatal shooting, a connection that moved Gallagher to act when he read the article.
“I was actually at Natalie Corona’s funeral, on the UC Davis campus, and it was a very powerful and heart-wrenching moment there, but all the community was together, right?” Gallagher said. “Then you read about [Clover] within that same campus community saying these incredibly horrendous things — so, as I was reading through [the article], the more righteously angry I was about the whole situation.”
Gallagher represents California’s Third Assembly District, which includes part of Corona’s home county, Colusa County, where her father is a county supervisor. Gallagher is also a UC Davis alumnus, having graduated from the UC Davis School of Law in 2007. He said that in creating the petition, he is acting as a legislator, representative, alumnus and concerned citizen against comments that he believes undermine the university and community.
“Through the petition, I wanted to give other alumni and the greater community a vehicle to express their voice and call for his ouster,” Gallagher said. “It sounds to me like the administration needs some encouragement, so we’re giving it to them.”
Gallagher is circulating the petition through Facebook, where it has so far been shared 688 times. The petition has also been publicized by Talk 650 KSTE radio.
Decisions regarding professor’s employment are ultimately up to UC Board of Regents, with recommendation by the University of California president and following consultation with Chancellor May and the Academic Senate. Before any discipline is imposed, all faculty members are entitled to an Academic Senate panel hearing.
After members of the public like Gallagher expressed their outrage with Clover’s comments and asked why the university has continued to employ Clover, the university released a statement to The Aggie addressing the petition and related questions.
“UC Davis has specific procedures for the review of complaints of faculty misconduct consistent with universitywide policies and bylaws,” the university said in the statement via email.
The university continued by addressing the academic freedom of faculty.
“The public expression of opinions, even those opinions considered controversial or abhorrent, enjoy a high level of protection under the First Amendment, and tenured faculty at the University of California enjoy significant employment protections, particularly around their speech,” the university wrote in the statement. “UC Davis is carefully reviewing this to ensure our response to the matter is consistent with universitywide policy and state and federal constitutional protections.”
Gallagher believes that these protections should not cover Clover’s comments.
“I am a fierce defender of free speech and diversity of thought, but this is very clear,” Gallagher said. “It’s basic First Amendment law that it does not protect against incitements to violence.”
Third-year English and psychology double major Isaac Flores, who took ENL 10C with Clover in the spring of 2018, believes that Clover’s comments are criticisms of policing as a system rather than incitements to violence toward individual police officers.
Flores said he came to this interpretation because during his class, Clover lectured on systems theory and made this distinction between individual participation and societal systems.
“I don’t believe his comments were directed at individual police officers, and I think that there is a lot of nuance that the article that was written on him doesn’t give him credit for,” Flores said. “I think that he has some very nuanced beliefs surrounding policing as an institution in society that were badly mischaracterized.”
The Aggie reached out to Clover for an interview request, to which Clover responded by putting his original comments in the same light.
“On the day that police have as much to fear from literature professors as Black kids do from police, I will definitely have a statement,” Clover said via email. “Until then I have nothing further to add.”
Gallagher, however, believes Clover’s comments should be understood directly.
“His [original] statement is very clear,” Gallagher said. “He said, ‘Police should not be reformed. They should be killed.’ I don’t know how you could read that any other way.”
Gallagher also denied that these comments should fall under the category of academic freedom at all.
“This isn’t about academic freedom, and I think the university even knows that because his statements were not made in his coursework or in anything related to his academic pursuits,” Gallagher said. “It’s about incitements to violence, [and] breaking the ideals of the campus community — and they should fire him.”
Flores thinks that for this very reason — that Clover’s statements were not made in his coursework — Clover should be protected, and he emphasized the fact that he had never heard Clover explicitly talk about his own political beliefs, much less recruit students to commit violence against police.
“I have just a general principle that people should be able to have their own political and personal beliefs separate from their professions,” Flores said. “If there was a conservative professor who had some beliefs that I didn’t agree with, or had some criticisms of ‘social justice warriors’ that I didn’t agree with, I would also call for a similar level of precaution before we just said, ‘Oh fire him because he doesn’t think the way that we do.’”
Both Flores and Gallagher shared concerns about how to have constructive conversations about policing. In Gallagher’s view, Clover is contributing to divisiveness through his violent comments instead of contributing to constructive dialogue.
“We need to get away from this really divisive and hateful rhetoric back and forth,” Gallagher said. “To me, that’s what real free speech is all about, and this professor’s statements just continue a downward spiral of our dialogue. What we really need to do is have constructive discussions about community policing, and protecting our law enforcement and having some reverence and respect for those who are protecting us on a daily basis.”
For Flores, Gallagher’s goal of removing Clover from the university represents unwillingness to engage in discussion about policing.
“I would challenge [Gallagher] to think about how his actions are contributing to a constructive conversation, because if you disagree with somebody or you find something that they say reprehensible, then you’ll want to create a dialogue with that person,” Flores said. “You won’t simply seek to have them sort of institutionally silenced and removed.”
The university was unable to further comment on the status of complaints against Clover or on current actions being taken regarding the issue, having cited confidentiality. In January, however, Provost Ralph J. Hexter released a statement to The Aggie regarding Clover’s statements.
“The UC Davis administration condemns the statement of Professor Clover to which you refer,” Hexter wrote. “It does not reflect our institutional values, and we find it unconscionable that anyone would condone much less appear to advocate murder. A young police officer was killed serving the city of Davis. We mourn her loss and express our gratitude to all who risk their lives protecting us. We support law enforcement, and the UC Davis Police Department and Chief Joe Farrow have been and remain critical partners to our community.”
Written by: Anne Fey — firstname.lastname@example.org