OGDEN — Weber State University is taking criticism from both sides of the aisle for its handling of a criminal justice professor who made threatening tweets related to ongoing, nationwide protests.
WSU Department of Criminal Justice professor Scott Senjo resigned from his teaching post Wednesday, after a storm of controversial Twitter posts. Senjo made several tweets which, among other things, applauded damage done by rioters to the CNN headquarters building and mused about violently attacking journalists.
“Nothing about this makes me happy but there’s this tiny sense of rightness in the burning of the CNN headquarters,” reads one of Senjo’s tweets. The Georgia-based cable news network’s headquarters building in Atlanta was damaged Friday, May 29, during riots in the city.
In another tweet responding to the account of a New York City journalist who said he was injured by police during a protest, Senjo wrote, “Excellent. If I was the cop, you wouldn’t be able to tweet.”
Protests in response to the death of George Floyd, who was killed May 25 in Minneapolis, have occurred all over the country. Several of the protests, including one in Salt Lake City, have turned violent, with assailants burning police cars, damaging storefronts and more.
Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer who subdued and killed Floyd by kneeling on his neck, was fired by the department after the incident and later charged with murder and manslaughter, according to The Associated Press.
Senjo expressed remorse for his words after the incident, saying he didn’t stand by them and that they were made in the “sordid atmosphere of Twitter knife fights where sarcastic put downs and tasteless humor are often the norm.” But while the professor has resigned and the university sharply condemned his tweets, the school has been criticized, at both ends of the spectrum, for its handling of the issue.
A group of more than 30 alumni from the school’s Ogden Peak Communications, a student-run public relations and advertising group, said they were disappointed in their alma mater’s response to the Black Lives Matter movement in general and in the handling of the Senjo incident.
“Many of our alumni are people of color,” reads a letter the group sent to the school. “The fact that Weber State did not make a public statement for George Floyd until Monday, June 1, 2020, is distressing. The fact that Weber State has still not explicitly stated that they stand with Black Lives Matter is inadequate.”
The group goes on to say they were “astounded that Weber State chose to wait and allow ... Senjo to resign, instead of immediately firing him.” Among other things, the alumni also urged the school to release a statement explicitly supporting the BLM movement and to replace Senjo with a person of color.
Meanwhile, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education expressed an opposing view, which was spelled out in a letter the organization sent to university president Brad Mortensen. According to the group’s website, FIRE is a nonprofit, nonpartisan group that focuses on protecting free speech rights on college campuses in the United States.
The group’s letter to Mortensen says while many people will find Senjo’s statements offensive, they were made outside of his official teaching role and fell short of exceptions in the First Amendment for unprotected “true threats” or incitement. Senjo’s Twitter page, which has been deleted, identified him as a criminal justice professor but made no mention of his affiliation to WSU.
“The First Amendment broadly protects government employees, particularly faculty members at a public university, when they speak as private citizens on matters of public concern,” the FIRE letter reads. “Senjo’s tweets, however offensive to other members of the community, do not amount to true threats, which are not protected by the First Amendment. Accordingly, WSU’s investigation into clearly protected expression is itself a violation of the First Amendment.”
The FIRE letter cites several appellate court cases that have held that government investigations into protected expression violate the First Amendment.
“Senjo’s tweets are clearly protected expression,” the letter says. “This principle does not shield Senjo from every consequence from his expression — including criticism by his colleagues, students, or the broader community, which is the remedy the First Amendment prefers to censorship: more speech.”
In a lengthy, late night Facebook post, Mortensen addressed some of the criticism he and the school has received.
“Why don’t I ever publicly show my support for Black Lives Matter? ... I believe it in my heart, but apparently not enough to say it, or promote it, or declare it,” Mortensen said. “Why not? Fear. Fear of what other people will think. Fear of what my cousin, and other law enforcement agents, might think. Fear that in doing so, I’ll stir up tensions or resentments toward WSU. Instead, I choose to be cautious.”
Mortensen went on to say his fears pale in comparison to the fear many of the school’s students of color experience, about being “the target of hate and bigotry for no other reason than the color of their skin.”
“I’m pledging to improve our campus culture and our conduct by making Weber State a place where everyone truly feels valued, supported and included,” Mortensen said. “A place all of our alumni can be proud to call their alma mater, because Black Lives Matter.”
The school did not have a direct, public response to the FIRE letter, but referred the Standard-Examiner to an earlier released statement.
“The university honors the First Amendment Rights of free speech, free press and peaceable assembly,” the statement reads. “We strongly urge all members of the campus community to proclaim and practice those rights to help restore calm and allow all voices to be safely heard during this time of national discord.”