The Foundation of Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) addressed a letter last week to Troy University chancellor Jack Hawkins urging him to address leaked emails in which he and Troy trustees discuss vetting research topics at a free-market think tank due to complaints from Alabama Power and the Business Council of Alabama (BCA).

1819 News first obtained screenshots of the emails from a source outside of Troy in March. The emails show Hawkins, Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles director Cam Ward and Alabama State Bar president Gibson Vance arguing in favor of restricting “uncontrolled freedom of speech or academic research” at Troy’s Johnson Center for Political Economy.

In February, there was a panel discussion at a Johnson Center event at a Birmingham hotel where a former Troy faculty member and economist criticized economic incentive programs and said they benefitted politicians and large businesses but not tax-paying small businesses who have to pay for them. 

According to Vance’s statements in the emails, the economist’s comments appear to have triggered a reaction from Alabama Power, the BCA and even state legislators. 

Expanding economic incentive programs was a major political priority of the Alabama business elite and political establishment in this legislative session. The economic incentive package, detailed in Gov. Kay Ivey’s “Game Plan,” was signed into law last week, thereby expanding the state’s ability to provide special funding and tax abatements to specific corporations.

The incentive package experienced zero opposition in the House. However, there was heated debate in the Senate surrounding a component of one of the bills that would use funding from the state’s education budget to fund tourism incentives. 

FIRE argued that the U.S. Constitution requires that public universities promote and defend freedom of speech and academic research on campus and that the Troy trustees were violating this duty when they acted under pressure from powerful businesses and politicians to redirect the Johnson Center’s research.

“Administrators may not engage in ‘vetting’ faculty research topics to ensure consistency with ideological or political beliefs,” FIRE program officer Naley Gluhanich wrote in the letter. “Troy can no more withhold approval of a research topic because some might not agree with the thesis or because it may make the university look bad than it can punish a faculty member for presenting that same view in the classroom when it is pedagogically relevant. For any research proposal, it is possible that someone, upon encountering its point of view, will disagree with the topic or results. But faculty at public universities must retain full academic freedom to decide which topics are worthy of inquiry without meddling from Troy administrators.”

FIRE Letter to Troy Univers... by Hank Hill

This is not FIRE's first run-in with Troy. 

According to FIRE's website, the foundation engaged in a lawsuit with Troy in 2005, charging the university with enacting harsh punishments for what they called "indecent expression" or "any activity that creates a mentally abusive, oppressive, or harmful situation for another." The lawsuit also charged Troy with a breach of contract, unlawful conditions placed on the receipt of state benefits and denial of due process and equal protection of the law.

The case was marked a "FIRE Victory" on FIRE's website.

FIRE maintains a database of free speech complaints from universities and evaluates the institutions' speech codes and rates Troy "red" for having at least one policy that "substantially restricts freedom of speech."

UPDATE 3:30 p.m.:

Troy issued the following statement:

“Troy University officials have received a letter from FIRE requesting information and clarification regarding the University’s commitment to academic freedom. That letter is under review. 

Academic freedom—the pursuit of ideas that expand knowledge and understanding of our world and society—is a central pillar of Troy University’s mission. Our faculty conduct research across diverse fields, including economics, world affairs, material science, and medicine. We support professors’ research without influence or consideration of political factors.”

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