Ferris has had over two months to investigate Thomas Brennan, who was put on administrative leave on Nov. 19, 2020 after the Torch reported on a Twitter account under his name that spread misinformation about COVID-19 and promoted racist language.
In the time since the last official statement on Nov. 19, 2020, Brennan openly claimed the Twitter account as his and defended his opinions expressed in a letter that was originally sent to MLive. He attempted to explain his use of the n-word, why atom bombs and the moon landing are fake and explain why his antisemitic tweets did not make him antisemitic.
President David Eisler released a statement on Nov. 23, 2020 about Brennan’s Twitter, condemning the opinions expressed on the account. Since then, there has been no updates or statements offered from the university.
Six requests have been made by the Torch in the past week for a statement from the university regarding the investigation into Brennan. No updates or statements have been offered and Eisler forwarded requests for comment to News Services and Social Media Manager Sandy Gholston, who has yet to provide any statements.
Part of the delay in the process is likely due to Brennan’s rights to due process and just cause protections in the collective bargaining agreement between the Ferris Faculty Association and the university. This includes notice, a complete investigation, representation, and a formal decision, all of which takes time, according to legal studies professor Emily Fransted. Ferris is a governmental actor as it pertains to the First Amendment, and the contract that the FFA is currently under provides an extent of academic freedom to faculty.
“We’re a government actor for purposes of the application of the Constitution,” Fransted said. “That doesn’t mean that everybody on campus can say anything that they want at any time. There are limitations to our First Amendment freedoms everywhere. But by that same token, more than a private employer could, Ferris needs to be respectful of their employees First Amendment protections.”
Section 7.4 of the FFA contract outlines the faculty members’ academic freedom. Two of the key points in this case are:
- “The concept of freedom should be accompanied by an equally demanding concept of responsibility. When Members speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline. They should at all times make every effort to be accurate, exercise appropriate restraint, show respect for the opinions of others and indicate that they are not an institutional spokesperson.”
- “Members are entitled to academic freedom in the classroom in discussing their assigned subjects and disciplines, and should alert their students to the various scholarly views related to those subjects, and avoid presenting totally unrelated material.”
The first provision outlines how academic freedom applies to faculty members outside of the classroom. This distinction gets extremely blurry, especially with social media now, according to Fransted. While Brennan identified himself as a Ferris faculty member, he did not claim to speak on behalf of the university in the tweets posted.
“As a result of that, he’s got an argument that he was acting in his personal capacity at the time that he was making these statements,” Fransted said. “To that extent, it’s more difficult for Ferris to touch him when he’s speaking in his personal capacity than it is in his official capacity. I don’t want to say that he’s untouchable at any time, because he’s not. Ferris can take action against him for things that he’s saying in his professional or personal capacity. But it’s a harder argument for them to make when he’s coming up with the defense that he was acting in his personal capacity and that his first amendment rights are being infringed upon by the university.”
The second provision under 7.4 outlines academic freedom in the classroom, which only extends to the faculty member’s area of study, or “assigned subjects and disciplines.” Here is where Fransted believes the university has a stronger case legally against Brennan.
Multiple former students of Brennan’s have stated that he spent entire class periods showing videos of the moon landing to explain why he believed it was fake during a physics class. Other students have said he frequently uses class time to talk about conspiracy theories related to cellphones, which he consistently tweets about.
A tweet from Jan. 30 states “the only way to cure the world of covid is to turn off the wifi and cell phone towers. Not just 5G, but 4G and all the Gs.”
According to Brennan’s personal website, which is linked to his Twitter profile, his university email was deactivated and his profile has been taken down from the university website.
For previous reporting on this issue, go to fsutorch.com.