Bakersfield, CA — The First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech protects Americans’ right to express themselves. It also forbids the state from forcing anyone to adhere to a specific belief system. Yet, Bakersfield College has done exactly that, compelling Professor Daymon Johnson and his fellow faculty members to adhere to a state-mandated ideology.
The Institute for Free Speech represents Professor Johnson in a federal lawsuit seeking to block enforcement of unconstitutional, repressive rules and practices that prevent Bakersfield College (“BC”) faculty from exercising basic rights to free speech and academic freedom. BC administrators investigate and punish faculty who criticize or question their preferred views, including state-mandated, administration-approved “anti-racism” ideology.
Professor Johnson is a full-time Professor of History at BC. He is also the Faculty Lead for the Renegade Institute for Liberty (“RIFL”), a group of BC faculty members who value genuine academic freedom, free speech, and critical thinking. RIFL, which takes its name after the school’s athletic teams, aims to promote and preserve freedom of thought and intellectual literacy through the open discourse of diverse political ideas.
Unfortunately for Professor Johnson and his colleagues, the BC administration treats independent thought as a punishable offense. Specifically, the Kern Community College District (“KCCD”), which operates BC, views the expression of disfavored viewpoints as grounds for termination, and has weaponized a broad “civility” requirement against dissenting voices. And BC has made clear that it expects the faculty’s adherence to “anti-racism” ideology.
Professor Johnson ran afoul of BC’s political preferences when he simply questioned a colleague’s anti-American views on RIFL’s Facebook page. The exchange led to an administrative complaint for “harassment” and “bullying” that necessitated the resolution of 29 separate allegations. After a five-month ordeal that required Professor Johnson to retain legal counsel, the administration finally cleared him, but with a warning that it will continue to investigate alleged misconduct.
BC administrators have sent an unmistakable message: anyone who dares commit wrongthink against the state-approved ideology—or who challenges other faculty who promote that ideology—can have their careers sidetracked or ruined.
In fact, that’s precisely what happened to Professor Johnson’s RIFL Faculty Lead predecessor, Professor Matthew Garrett. The administration terminated Garrett after he spoke out publicly against BC’s preferred views, including by publishing an op-ed in the local newspaper, appearing on a radio show, giving media interviews, and posting online comments. The administration even cited Professor Garrett’s defense of the term “cultural Marxism,” deeming it “hate speech.” Among Garrett’s offenses: his failure to censor RIFL’s Facebook posts—posts made by Professor Johnson.
BC’s vigorous enforcement of ideological purity may be inconsistent with the First Amendment, but it is entirely consistent with the stated goals of the college district’s Board of Trustees, one of whom said publicly of those who speak out, “They’re in that five percent that we have to continue to cull. Got them in my livestock operation, and that’s why we put a rope on some of them and take them to the slaughterhouse.”
In the midst of this violent rhetoric, and already having endured one investigation, Professor Johnson now self-censors and reluctantly takes action to prevent further punishment.
“The First Amendment, not wokeism, determines whether speech is protected in America’s government-run schools,” explained Alan Gura, lead counsel for Professor Johnson and Vice President for Litigation at the Institute for Free Speech. “The courts should end Bakersfield College’s repressive behavior, and ensure that no member of the school community faces official discipline for offering political views, no matter who dislikes it.”
The lawsuit asks that the school and its administrators be enjoined from investigating or disciplining Professor Johnson for offering his viewpoints, and seeks to strike down the state’s adoption of an official ideology for its community college system.
To read the complaint in the case, Johnson v. Watkin, click here.