Case Study

University of Miami professor defends sexual harassment


In 2013, Colin McGinn, a renowned philosopher at the University of Miami, resigned from his tenured position amid allegations of sexual harassment by one of his graduate students. The student documented hundreds of emails and texts in which McGinn explicitly expressed a desire to engage in sexual activity with the student and implicitly threatened to retaliate against her professionally if she refused. McGinn defended himself on his blog and in The New York Times on intellectual grounds, claiming that his innuendo was in the interest of “trying to teach a budding philosopher important logical distinctions” and that to interpret his comments as harassment betrayed an inability to grasp philosophical concepts. Some academics came to McGinn’s defense, arguing that a punitive response to McGinn’s behavior would have a chilling effect on intellectual exchange between faculty and students.

PEN America Analysis

This case highlights the need to distinguish protected academic speech from prohibited harassment. Behavior that creates a hostile environment is not protected speech, and to defend it on intellectual and pedagogical grounds is a disingenuous application of the principle of academic freedom. There is no contradiction between punishing sexual harassment and protecting free speech and academic freedom. But defending sexual harassment on free speech grounds contributes to the perception that there is such a contradiction and does a disservice to both efforts to combat harassment and efforts to protect expression.

Further Reading