University Sued for Violating Music Prof’s Free Speech

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Cancel Culture is spreading across the country faster than you can say, “Down with the First Amendment.”

It has even come to red state Texas, and the object of cancellation is perhaps the last thing you’d expect: classical music. Yes, classical music, which came under fire from a social media gaggle at the University of North Texas (UNT) in Denton. To the defense of classical music came Timothy Jackson, a UNT Distinguished University Research Professor of Music Theory. For his defense of music against the charge of racism, Professor Jackson is now in danger of losing his job. Left with no other alternative, he is suing the university for violating his First Amendment rights. Under the law, state universities are required to uphold the First Amendment.

Here are the facts of the case: Jackson, with his colleagues at UNT, published a “Symposium” in July 2020 in the Journal for Schenkerian Studies. Of the symposium’s 15 scholarly contributions, some were critical of and others in support of music-theory scholar Philip Ewell, a professor at Hunter College at the City University of New York. Ewell had argued publicly that “music theory is white.” He censured the classical music tradition as well as music theory as “racist.”

Ewell targeted his criticism on the late-nineteenth-century/early-twentieth-century Jewish music theorist Heinrich Schenker, sometimes referred to as the “Albert Einstein of music theory.” Ewell characterized him as a “virulent racist,” whose racism “linked . . . repugnant views on people to his music theories.”

Schenker is the namesake of the Journal of Schenkerian Studies, and UNT’s Jackson is the founding member of the journal’s editorial staff and board. Ewell criticized scholars like Jackson, who, he charged, as “white persons . . . severed Schenker’s racist convictions from his music theories in order to promote Schenkerism.”

Jackson’s Journal of Schenkerian Studies published its Symposium issue in response to Ewell’s charge of “whitewashing” music theory.  In other words, what happened was an age-old phenomenon – an intense academic debate, usually interesting only to the debaters themselves. But the UNT administration and its Board of Regents didn’t see it that way. UNT’s leadership melted in a flash when calumnies started popping up on Twitter and other social media platforms, characterizing both Jackson and his music journal as racist.

Almost immediately after Jackson published the Symposium, UNT announced that it was investigating both him and the journal. Why? UNT pointed to its responsibility for “combating racism.” But in what, precisely, did the alleged “racist actions” of Jackson consist? Apparently, it is now racist to publish opinions on an academic question – whether or not Schenker’s anti-black comments influenced his music theory – that the social justice crowd has already resolved for itself.

As if this weren’t enough, several campus activists (whom Jackson is suing for defamation), circulated petitions and four open letters calling for Jackson’s firing, for his journal to be shut down, and for UNT’s Center for Schenkerian Studies to be canceled.

In the face of these demands, did UNT’s leadership finally put its foot down and remind the activists that state schools are legally bound to protect the First Amendment rights of all under their charge? Did UNT’s Regents remind the cancel crowd that federal courts have ruled consistently that “hate speech” – assuming, for a moment, that Jackson’s speech would qualify for that designation – is constitutionally protected speech?

They did not. Instead, they quickly caved.

In the name of “combating racism,” UNT decided in Jackson’s case not to enforce its own stated policies upholding academic freedom. Instead, the school convened an “ad hoc panel” to conduct a so-called investigation, the conclusion of which was to condemn Jackson, and Jackson solely, for “editorial mismanagement.” In coming to this judgment, the panel adhered to none of the procedural safeguards under which real judges operate and which they are bound to enforce. Convinced that it knew better, the panel proceeded free of the “burden” of following established rules and policies on which to provide sound decisions.

After ignoring a number of grievance complaints sent by Professor Jackson, UNT finally responded – only to inform the music professor that he would be removed from the journal he had founded.

For all these reasons, Professor Jackson has found himself forced to file a lawsuit (publicly available here) for violation of his First Amendment rights. Under Texas law, those who publish baseless accusations of racism can be sued for defamation. Therefore, Jackson has also sued 18 other campus members.

Adding insult to injury, these campus members will have their legal expenses paid for them. By whom? By taxpayers.

Readers are invited to make their own judgments by having a look at Jackson’s journal, including his article, here. In the meantime, consider what is being done in Denton. In the course of his article defending Schenker and classical music generally from the charge of racism, Professor Jackson also cautioned against the new anti-Semitism of the extreme Left, which, he argued, is also present in some hip -op and rap music, for which Ewell has expressed wholehearted support.

This bit of hard-hitting truth in Jackson’s article is likely what caused UNT to go weak in its collective knees. Jackson was challenging a fellow academic to be consistent in his arguments.

In today’s increasingly intolerant American university, such calls for clarity are deemed “offensive.”

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