COLUMN: Poor and poorer: is MU right in its handling of this Professor’s controversial comment?

As a Chinese international student, I do not find Professor Joel Poor’s joke to be particularly funny, but whether that alone justifies the sanction he faced is another matter.

Mavis Chan is a sophomore journalism and political science major at MU. She is an opinion columnist who writes about campus and current affairs for The Maneater.

Something big happened on the first day of class at MU. No, I am not referring to the coronavirus outbreak. A controversy erupted over MU professor Joel Poor’s comments regarding an international student from Wuhan.

For those not quite up to date with university news, this whole controversy happened within approximately 15 seconds of a Zoom conversation that occurred in class. Associate teaching professor Joel Poor, during his first lecture in a course called Principles of Marketing on Monday, Aug. 24, asked whether there were any international students in the class. When a student responded that he was from Wuhan, China, Poor said, “Wuhan? Well, let me get my mask on,” followed by a chuckle.

The backlash from students was swift and significant. The Twitter account of student group #StillConcerned posted a clip of Professor Poor’s comment and called for his firing on the same day, amassing over 1000 likes in a week. Soon afterward, the official MU Twitter account replied to the post, saying they have submitted the video clip to the Office of Civil Rights and Title IX. Many students also voiced their disapprobation with Poor, saying he was being “racist,” “xenophobic” and “unprofessional”.

In a longer video of the Zoom lecture, Poor asked the Chinese student about his travel arrangements, whether he had any trouble getting back home in the summer. Finally, the professor even offered the student a place to stay if he needs it in the future. These comments strike me as what a caring and generous person would say. Later that day, Poor sent an apology to his students. The apology reads, “To anyone who was offended by my comments, I sincerely apologize and I want to communicate unequivocally that I have nothing but respect and love for the Chinese people and especially my students from China.”

For that joke alone, he was removed from his teaching duties and is currently under investigation from MU’s Title IX Office. A university spokesperson announced on Aug 25, Poor “remains employed by the university and has been assigned to other duties.” On the other hand, a large group of students support Professor Poor, evidenced by the petition “Keep Joel Poor as a University of Missouri Professor” on change.org, which has now garnered over 9000 signatures.

I am not here to defend the honor of Poor. He certainly doesn’t get my vote in the humor department. However, that is another story for another day. Right now, I am concerned only with the repercussions he faced because of that particular joke.

The joke in question may not really be appropriate in the current climate. Does this justify MU suspending his teaching duties immediately? Definitely not. University of Missouri is a public university, funded by taxpayers, bound by the Constitution that pledges to uphold academic freedom. On its face, the joke is not defamation, obscenity or other well-established First Amendment exceptions. What happened here is the state punishing a citizen for saying something it does not like.

I am only worried about the chilling effects this incident will have on academic freedom. What happened to Poor, intentionally or not, sends a message to all other faculty members. If a joke will land someone in such hot waters, what will that mean for future academic research or teaching? Will any untenured faculty member still be willing to conduct studies and research projects on controversial topics, seeing their jobs depend on them expressing acceptable opinions? Will they be dissuaded from publishing research papers that may raise a contrarian or unorthodox conclusion on hot-button issues? Will they still feel confident enough to introduce students to uncomfortable but nonetheless valid ideas in the classroom?

This trend toward punishing speech is hardly a problem unique to MU. In fact, it seems even government officials and politicians in the country lack deep respect for free speech. Some of the more outrageous moments – Senator Tom Cotton’s op-ed suggesting sending in the military to curb “rioting”, in effect crushing the freedom to peacefully protest; Trump’s attempt in banning TikTok; even Joe Biden called for repealing Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act – are so surreal they must be happening in an alternate universe where the United States is not founded with a “decent respect to the opinions of mankind,” as stated in The Declaration of Independence.

Obviously, this argument may seem like a distraction from issues as colossal as racial justice. However, freedom of speech and civil rights walk hand in hand. All the marches, speeches and pamphlets that bloomed during the Civil Rights Movement were people using and demanding, among other rights, their right not to be silenced by the authorities; The Baldwin-Buckley debate in 1965 exposed how ridiculous even the most “eloquent” arguments for white supremacy were. Opinions ought not to be censored or suppressed, since that will only harden their stubbornness. Instead, interactions with other viewpoints can change minds, revealing the weight and veracity of each argument across the socio-political spectrum.

Certainly, it is often incomprehensible to us why some people have ideas that are simply blatantly wrong in our minds. We should definitely challenge them and point out the errors in their rationales. However, forcing them to shut up is not effective in advancing our own opinions. Letting the government punish people for their speech is even riskier. What is freedom if it allows no room for discord or heterodoxy on the most important issues of our day?

In Poor’s case, it is much more effective for the students who objected to his joke to express that sentiment to him directly, instead of calling for his termination immediately. Reason with him, persuade him and let him understand why that joke may offend a substantial number of students. That is a more effective way to win over the hearts and minds of people with the opposite view on this controversy.

Why do I care about rights in a foreign land? Because to many people, despite all her flaws, the United States symbolizes a commitment to freedom. This is why, in Hong Kong, where I come from, some protestors wave the American flag during recent pro-democracy protests.

Right now, I am living under a government that arrests people for displaying certain flags, parodying the national anthem due to their “offensiveness”; people are barred from running for elections because their political ideologies are deemed “dangerous,” the list of abuse goes on. This is what eventually happens at the bottom of the slippery slope when people do not care about the freedoms of people whose views they find unpalatable.

So, to put it very succinctly, as a Chinese international student here at MU, all I can say about the whole controversy involving Poor is this: He did not deserve the punishment he got. I did not travel halfway across the globe to see this happen in the United States. State retaliation against unpopular speech reminds me too much of the place I left behind. It can’t happen here.

Please donate to NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, a national legal organization fighting for racial justice, civil rights and equality for all Americans: https://org2.salsalabs.com/o/6857/p/salsa/donation/common/public/?donate_page_KEY=15780

Edited by Sofi Zeman | szeman@themaneater.com

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