This tenured professor is fighting for her right to free speech after university tried to “cancel” her

May 05, 2022 | By BRITTANY HUNTER
Weiss SJSU Photo

Dr. Elizabeth Weiss is a fully tenured professor of anthropology at San Jose State University.  

When you speak with her, the passion she feels for her work as a scholar and a lecturer is reflected in her radiant smile.  

She is well-spoken and calmer than you’d expect one to be while discussing how her university colleagues have tried to ostracize her.  

Weiss specializes in osteology—the study of human skeletal remains. She holds strong views about the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), and other similar laws, which require laboratories and museums to hand over certain Native American remains to the tribes for reburial.  

“I’m against reburying bones,” she says. “I think they can tell us a lot about the past.” 

She continued: 

“I think they can be used to train forensic anthropologists. I think that they are a key resource for young anthropologists, for archaeologists, forensic anthropologists, and I think that we still have a lot to learn from skeletal remains. I also think that a collection is not something that you study once and then it can be repatriated, because as you build knowledge on the collection, it helps you ask deeper questions as you learn more about the collection.”

This is a stance from which she has never tried to hide; indeed, the university has praised her for her innovative and thought-provoking ideas. But they are views that many now have labeled “anti-indigenous” or even racist.  

For most of her career, her research has been supported by her university colleagues. The university had even praised her as a prolific and rigorous scholar and lecturer. In 2019, she was awarded San Jose State’s College of Social Sciences’ Austen D. Warburton Award of Merit for excellence in scholarship.  

But after the 2020 release of her book Repatriation and Erasing the Past, Dr. Weiss found herself at the center of controversy and a social outcast on campus as students, professors, and administrators branded her a racist and white supremacist.  

She found it difficult to reconcile the administrators’ newfound condemnation with their longstanding support of her research. Her criticisms of NAGPRA were, after all, well-known. But the smear campaign against her was just beginning.  

For 18 years, Weiss has served as the curator of the university’s collection of remains. But after the debacle began, the school changed the locks and prevented her from getting near the remains.   

Worse still, the university did nothing to shield her from the mob. The school even went so far as to hold a Zoom meeting with the passive-aggressive title, “What to Do When a Tenured Professor is Branded a Racist,” as well as a series of “anti-racism” workshops where participants called for censoring her views.  

When she asked if she could hold a counter-event to tell her own side of the story, the school denied her request. She was also threatened with disciplinary action and other forms of retaliation if she continued to espouse her views to her students.  

While her opinions are certainly considered controversial by many, she had held them for years, during which she encountered no backlash, aside from other scholars disagreeing with her. 

But academia has changed so drastically over the past several years, controversial views are no longer welcome.  

Where dissenting opinions were once revered as a golden opportunity for civil discourse and a deep exploration of opposing ideas, colleges and universities have begun suppressing views that might be seen as offensive.  

Expressing controversial views is not a cardinal sin. In fact, as a professor at a publicly funded school, she is well within her First Amendment rights to do so.  

Professor Weiss has refused to capitulate to the mob and is now fighting for her First Amendment rights in court, with Pacific Legal Foundation’s assistance.  

But by stifling her ability to share her extensive knowledge and opinions with her students, San Jose State University is doing much more than just violating her constitutional rights: It is neglecting its obligation to its students. 

Young adult minds are curious and eager to form their own independent viewpoints of the world around them. Colleges and universities exist specifically to guide students on this journey by exposing them to a host of ideas and opinions from which they can make educated decisions and form their own personal views.  

That process is currently being inhibited by the actions of San Jose State University administrators 

What is perhaps the most tragic aspect of this story is the fact that what is happening to Dr. Weiss is not limited to her alone.  

It’s happening in colleges and universities across the country.  

In 2017, Evergreen State College professor of biology Bret Weinstein became the target of administrators and students after he expressed his views on a “Day of Absence.”  

The campus had a tradition of encouraging students of color to stay home one day a year to highlight the diversity that minority students bring to the school.  

But that year, the purpose of the day was flipped on its head. It was decided that all white professors and students should stay home as a show of remorse and restitution to the black and minority student body and faculty. 

Typically, observation of this holiday is optional, but students and faculty were not given that option in 2017.   

Anyone unwilling to leave campus for the day was told that they were exacerbating the systemic racism they believed was present in every single white person on campus.  

This did not sit well with Weinstein, who made his concerns known in an email to faculty, saying, “I will be on campus on the Day of Absence. I would encourage others to put phenotype aside and reject this new formulation, whether they have ‘registered’ for it or not. On a college campus, one’s right to speak—or to be—must never be based on skin color.” 

The subsequent response by students and his colleagues felt like something straight out of a dystopian nightmare.  

Students cornered him on campus shouting obscenities and demanding his proverbial head on a platter.   

At one point, students held faculty and administrators hostage inside the school until certain demands were met. Among them was a requirement that all faculty sign a pledge promising to promote equity and diversity on campus.  

The threats to Dr. Weinstein, and to his wife and fellow Evergreen professor Heather Heying, continued to mount. At one point, police warned Dr. Weinstein to stay home, as they feared for his safety, should he attempt to fulfill his duties as a professor.  

Eventually, Weinstein and Heying resigned, sued the school, and won a settlement. But a lump sum of money will never fully give restitution to the loss of their life’s work.  

This effort to wipe out freedom of thought is also proceeding at a systemic level.  

Since 2015, the University of California requires all applicants for academic positions to submit a statement regarding their contributions to diversity.  

Many UC campuses employ rubrics that expressly penalize anyone who expresses support for treating everyone equally regardless of race.  

As PLF attorney Daniel Ortner explained in a law review article that was published earlier this year: 

“[t]he introduction of the mandatory diversity statement shifts the battleground away from the classroom and away from the publication of particularly controversial faculty speech towards systematic evaluation of viewpoint that is largely unrelated to classroom activities and unrelated to whether the viewpoint is expressed in a particularly offensive or divisive fashion.”  

 This dangerous trend could spell the end of robust academic freedom on the crucial topics of equality and diversity.   

When professors are prohibited from executing their right to freely express their views, and thus, their proper role as educational guides to their students, institutions of higher education stray from their intended purpose.   

Instead, colleges and universities become places where students are told what to think rather than how to think.  

Unfortunately, Professor Weiss’ request for an injunction to access the skeletal remains was denied, but Pacific Legal Foundation will continue to fight on her behalf to ensure she is free to speak and to share her views with her students.   

College and university campuses should be bastions of free speech. Professors should be unafraid of exercising their First Amendment rights, and students should be willing to hear and consider every point of view they encounter.  

Pacific Legal Foundation is committed to defending and upholding that right, even when it may be deemed controversial to do so.