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14 October 2017

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In September 2016 I was called into a meeting by Eve Browning, chair of philosophy at University of Texas at San Antonio, where I was a graduate student. I was threatened with disciplinary action for an outside-of-class comment about Islam that took place in a conversation with another student.

My comment in particular was “I don’t have a high opinion of Islam.”

To be clear:

I was having an outside-of-class conversation with another graduate student about the religious leanings of philosophy professors. Specifically, I was curious if there would be any bias toward me if I took a religious philosophy course as an atheist. I didn't think there would be; I took a theology course at a catholic university, and was openly atheist, and had zero pushback about this. So I commented that I had a good opinion of Christian professors in this regard. The student I was talking to mentioned that she was Christian but that her fiance was Muslim. I said "I don't have a high opinion of Islam", and mentioned the aspects you heard in the recording. I mentioned that I didn't have anything against her fiance personally, and that I was strictly talking about the religious beliefs themselves. I took this to mean that she wanted to talk about our personal lives, so I mentioned my fiancee and our leanings and we talked about what restaurants she's worked at.

The conversation very demonstrably started with ideas and shifted to people.

Even if it hadn't, this would still be unjustifiable to discipline at a public university, but I am emphasizing that this is the grounds on which Eve called me in for a disciplinary threat because, as she is the head of a philosophy department, it's that much more egregious.

A few days after the conversation, I was called in for a meeting via email that just read "Alfred, I'd like to meet with you to discuss some behavioral concerns." At the time I lived 15 miles from the UTSA campus, I was in the process of moving, I was buying a car for school, and my commute averaged two hours of driving per day, so before agreeing I asked if she could just email me her concerns as an hour-long meeting was in fact asking me to take three hours out of my day. Since she insisted that I meet her in person in light of this, I reasoned that her issue is probably not convenience or efficiency but concealment of at least some part of what she was going to talk about. Therefore, as Texas is a one-party consent state, it was in my best interest to record whatever this was.

During this meeting with Eve, my right to first amendment expression -- outside of class, on a taxpayer-funded public campus -- was potentially compromised.

From the transcription:

ALFRED MACDONALD: I thought that UTSA was a public university with first amendment protections? So I could be dismissed for stuff like that? Just…

EVE BROWNING: Making derogatory comments? Yes.

Knowing this, she has potentially compromised the academic speech of her entire department. I am going forward with this after months of preparation.

Currently, I am in Good Standing at another university and not within Eve Browning’s reach. This is why I have chosen now to go public about this incident and expose the degree of speech suppression happening under Eve Browning at UTSA.

The comment that Eve Browning objects to occurred on the UTSA campus, but outside of a class. I was talking with another philosophy student about various religions as they relate to philosophical leanings. The conversation started over how I was concerned that I would be treated unfairly because I am an atheist working under many religious philosophers. So she led the conversation with “yeah, you have to watch out for [insert professor] in that case.”

Some time after this she mentioned Islam, which is where this controversy over my comment was conceived.

My reply was “I don’t think highly of Islam because I am bisexual and could be legally put to death in about a dozen countries that use Islam for their legal system.”

This was offensive to the student, because her fiance is Muslim. I did not know this at the time; obviously, and my comment occurred primarily in a discussion of ideas, not people. In fact, I repeatedly told the student “I’m sure he’s a great guy.” She seemed pleasant as if nothing had gone wrong, and then reported this to the chair afterward.

But even if my comment was about her fiance, this should not be grounds for disciplinary action on a university campus funded by taxpayer dollars. You should be able to criticize the religious leanings of anyone, anywhere, on any taxpayer-funded university campus outside of a classroom. The implication that you not only cannot be able to but should not be able to is so backward it’s pre-Enlightenment.

Eve Browning’s comments during the meeting suggest that she thinks three things:

(1) I am wrong to mention how easily Islamic law would have me put to death.
(2) I should feel sorry for mentioning that I could be killed in this way.
(3) Not only should I be sorry, it should be so obvious to me that I shouldn’t even question her.

Several times throughout the conversation she seems as if she’s trying to fabricate what happened by asking me loaded questions. She also shift the terms of the conversation in a way that’s more favorable to her angle: after I had just said I was talking about laws, she said “doesn’t that strike you as an inappropriate thing to say about someone’s fiance?” and I had to clarify “I wasn’t talking about the fiance” a second time, and “we got to the subject of Islam, not the fiance” a third time as she makes yet another failed attempt to frame the remark as an attack on the student’s fiance, rather than a statement about Islam as a religious idea and legal system.

She tries to seem ignorant of her intentions by saying it’s “confusing to her”, as if to downplay Islam’s role in this policy to LGBT people. It’s clearly not confusing to her -- later in the conversation, she shifts the terms from “killed” to “discriminated against” --

EVE BROWNING: "do you tell him that you object to his religion because there are places on earth where gay, lesbian and bisexual people are discriminated against, including your own country?

ALFRED MACDONALD: Well, “her.” And my verbiage was “killed” not “discriminated against.” I mean, the death penalty is pretty severe.

The only reason she would do this is if she was aware of how bad “killed” sounded, and had decided on a spin for her position in advance. This is also evident when she cites the “fastest growing religion” statistic, even though it’s irrelevant to the conversation.

It’s obvious throughout the transcription that Eve knows what she’s trying to do. She repeatedly tries to use misleading language to exaggerate the numbers in favor of her position: she will not say “three professors”, she will say “half of the graduate faculty.” She will say not say “this is the most complaints we’ve had in three semesters”, she will say “this is the most complaints in the history of the program”, even though the program had only been active for less than two years. (There's no way to know if other students were removed by her hand, too.) She’s very careful to say that she won’t directly dismiss me from the program, such as when she says “no one is threatening you with dismissal”, but she does threaten me with the procedures that could lead to dismissal, which is functionally the same thing.

She even implies dismissal by comparing the school to an office. Specifically, she implies several times that she considers the school a workplace, then states that she'd fire me for that remark at a workplace. This is one of her most revealing remarks. Indirectly, she's saying that she thinks this remark should be worthy of removal on its own.

This is not true, and should never be true. A university should be the time you are the most intellectually uncomfortable you've ever been. The most unique function of a university is to use ideas to challenge other ideas. Every other function: certification, knowledge transmission, and so on can be replicated trivially by online courses. To the extent universities have a unique, irreplicable function it is to the extent they challenge and test your ideas. The concept of restricting outside-of-class speech at a taxpayer-funded university due to something like 'appropriateness' is itself inappropriate to the very idea of a university.

Not only does she think her position is a non-issue for academic freedom, she laughs at the idea that I could meaningfully object about this to anyone. She concludes our meeting with “Don’t even ask. It’s clear you’re not taking my word for it. I don’t care to convince you.” This is suspiciously close to “it’s not my job to educate you”, said by someone who has been appointed head of a department of professional educators.

I have taken so long to go public with this because I want to do it right. Eve Browning, and professors like her, are unfit to guide the direction of scholarship and knowledge. There’s no telling how many ideas have never seen light at UTSA under her leadership. Whatever her role, she thinks the foundational principles of universities themselves are a joke. She should not be in charge of anyone in any knowledge-based profession, and she should be stripped of her taxpayer-funded influence at the University of Texas at San Antonio.


Full audio and transcription: [REMOVED BY PRIVACY COMPLAINT]

Abridged version with only parts relevant to the first amendment: [REMOVED BY PRIVACY COMPLAINT]

Even more abridged version, with just the wtf parts: [REMOVED BY PRIVACY COMPLAINT]

Full audio, unedited:

Full transcript of the meeting:

Mirror of video:

Longer miror:

Privacy complaint that led to the full audio being removed:


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