Prof. Daniel Demetriou readily admits that his Facebook comments on immigrants were a bit of a rant.
But he never expected them to spread around campus, much less set off a public outcry.
Now, Demetriou, who teaches ethics and philosophy at the University of Minnesota Morris, is facing a backlash over a Facebook post in which he asserted that illegal immigrants “on average have IQs lower than natives” and that many refugees come from a “cult with repulsive values at war with the west.”
The post, which was circulated around campus without his knowledge, prompted some of his fellow faculty members to call for a “teach-in” to support immigrants and refugees on Monday. “Hopefully we can pull together as a community and refute these outright lies,” Heather Peters, an associate professor of psychology who helped organize the teach-in, told City Pages.
Demetriou, who is on sabbatical in Sweden, said he was caught off guard by the uproar over his posts, which he said were intended only for his Facebook friends.
At the same time, he defended his remarks, saying they had “been seized upon in order to further a political agenda and punish a dissenting voice.”
“I am ideologically right in a very ideologically left world,” he wrote in a statement to news organizations. “Although I am outspoken in private discussion, I am not involved in any political groups on campus, and I have never rallied for a cause. ... But I am persuaded that the leftist immigration and refugee policy agenda, especially given the influence of divisive social justice theory and looming automation, is an existential threat to the US and other advanced western nations.”
Demetriou, a tenured associate professor who has taught at Morris since 2009, wrote in his Facebook post that “100% of illegal immigrants lower confidence in the rule of law and add people and workers and students we don’t need.”
After copies of his post started circulating on the Morris campus, Chancellor Michelle Behr sent a campuswide e-mail Feb. 13, saying: “While democracy should and does rightfully tolerate expression of differences of opinion, some members of our community have found these communications both personally and professionally distressing.” She never mentioned Demetriou by name, but added: “It is imperative that we all make every effort to express these differences in a respectful way.”
To many, the Facebook post was the latest sign of an upsurge in anti-immigrant sentiment since the presidential election, according to Julie Eckerle, an English professor who is helping organize Monday’s teach-in. “[It] illuminated the deep need for more conversation, and perhaps gave a local intensity to an international crisis,” she told the Star Tribune.
By Friday, news of the controversy was spreading online, drawing both criticism and support from around the country.
“Demetriou’s comments constitute a straightforward case of racist hate-speech,” wrote one commenter on a philosophy blog called Daily Nous.
But Justin Weinberg, the blog’s author and an associate professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina, defended Demetriou. “[His] comments are clearly protected as extramural speech under a widely accepted understanding of academic freedom,” he wrote. And even though they disagree, he added, “He is a smart and interesting philosopher with a distinctive take on ethics and politics who is completely open to reasonable discussion about these matters.”
Demetriou acknowledged that his original post was “a rant,” much like many posts on Facebook. “No short post on such a complex topic, let alone a rant, could survive much scrutiny,” he wrote in an e-mail. At the same time, Demetriou, who says he’s the grandson of Greek immigrants, added: “I don’t see such outbursts as immoral, inappropriate or even ill-advised in the context of Facebook. People need a space to vent with their friends, frenemies, and acquaintances.”
As to the response on his campus, he wrote, “I have no problem with disagreement, teach-ins, rallies, etc. ... Unfortunately, I’m not there to defend myself.”
But once his sabbatical ends, he added, “I welcome debating any of these points when I return.”