On September 14, 2020, the Mississippi State Auditor sent a letter to the University of Mississippi calling for the dismissal of a professor for his participation in a nationwide “scholar strike” in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
James Thomas, a professor of sociology, joined a September 8-9 effort in which professors around the country agreed to stop their classes and focus instead on racial justice-related activities. The State Auditor, Shad White, said that he began to pursue the issue after he saw a Twitter post from Professor Thomas about the “scholar strike”, as well as an email to students about the event, which White said had been circulating on the internet. Although university personnel issues are not the normal purview of a state auditor, White insisted that his involvement was appropriate because, he believed, Thomas’s action constituted an illegal work stoppage under a 1985 Mississippi law that prohibited public school teachers from engaging in strikes “for the purpose of inducing, influencing or coercing a change in the conditions, compensation, rights, privileges or obligations of public employment.” Thomas’s attorneys argued that, as his action was not a work stoppage intended to demand more compensation or a change in working conditions, and instead amounted to an academic teach-in about racism, it was not covered by the law.
On September 14, White sent a letter to the university’s chancellor, recommending that Thomas be terminated, and that the university recoup two days’ salary that Thomas earned during the “scholar strike.” Four days later, White issued a subpoena to the university demanding:
- All emails sent or received from Professor James Michael Thomas’ University of Mississippi
email account during the time period of August 15, 2020 through September 5, 2020.
- A copy of Professor James Michael Thomas’ class schedule for the 2020 Fall semester, specifically to include the meeting date and time for all classes.
- A copy of the class roster for each class taught by Professor James Michael Thomas during the 2020 Fall semester.
- Copies of all documents uploaded to Professor James Michael Thomas’ University of Mississippi Blackboard account for all classes in the 2020 Fall semester. This is not limited to but should specifically include all class syllabi, class lesson plans, and all course material. [Blackboard is an online course management system that provides access to course materials, assignments and class discussions].
- Copies of any communication sent or received by Professor James Michael Thomas through his University of Mississippi Blackboard account.
As of this report, the University of Mississippi’s response to the subpoena, if any, has not been publicly disclosed.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about demands by a state authority that a university terminate a professor, based on his nonviolent, expressive, on-campus activity; and by demands for non-public communications between the professor and his students, lists of students, and other teaching and course materials. Such acts violate university autonomy and academic freedom more broadly, as well as the rights to freedom of expression and association — rights that are expressly protected under the United States Constitution, as well as international human rights instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which the United States is a signatory. State authorities have an obligation not to interfere with or attempt to retaliate for on-campus, academic activity. Likewise university authorities have an obligation not only to refrain from terminating scholars based on nonviolent exercise of the right to academic freedom, but also to take available measures to maintain and protect university autonomy, including by responding appropriately to outside pressures that restrict, chill, or retaliate against on-campus expression.